Felipe Riveros throws during an intrasquad game. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)
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In Monday’s Post, we told a story about Felipe Rivero, who was one of the brightest spots of the Nationals’ 2015 season. He not only debuted but was a revelation. And now entering the 2016 season, he has arguably the highest upside of any reliever in the Nationals’ projected bullpen. He throws in the high 90s, can touch 100 mph, has a good change-up and an improving slider, proved versatile and was effective against batters from both sides of the plate.

Rivero may be a left-handed long reliever or, more likely, a set-up man this season. But in another year, when Jonathan Papelbon is a free agent, Rivero could be a viable in-house option – along with perhaps Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen, if he improves – to take over as closer.

This is how Rivero represents a lot to the Nationals. So far, he counts as a victory for the scouting and development staffs, who spotted him in the Tamps Bay minors and helped him reach this point. It is also another example of how General Manager Mike Rizzo netted what seemed like a minor piece in a trade — the Nate Karn for Jose Lobaton plus two minor leaguers before 2014 — but it has proved valuable.

“It’s always good to see your projection and thought process, and what our scouts saw come to fruition,” Rizzo said. “It was a good scouting job by our professional scouts and thought he’d be the guy that he is today.”

Bullpens have become increasingly valuable in modern baseball. For the first time in baseball history, teams averaged more than four pitchers per game in 2015. The game has become shorter for starters and bullpens more specialized. But relievers are such a volatile group. They break down. And because so much focus goed into relievers, they have become more expensive, especially closers. This past offseason provides numerous examples of pricey contracts for relievers. So it is more efficient and cheaper for teams to properly develop bullpens from within.

Since the Nationals developed Craig Stammen (drafted), Tyler Clippard (trade but converted into reliever by Washington) and Drew Storen (draft), they haven’t produced many high-quality homegrown relievers recently. Treinen and Aaron Barrett have shown flashes of ability but have dealt with inconsistency and injury. Sammy Solis and Matt Grace are a step behind. Abel De Los Santos, Nick Lee and perhaps others such as Austin Voth, Koda Glover or Reynaldo Lopez could be a part of the following wave.

For now, Rivero is the most recent example of the Nationals producing a strong reliever from within. Although he was signed by Tampa Bay, the Nationals converted Rivero into a reliever and allowed him to flourish.

The arbitration process rewards saves and the free agent market landed closers like Papelbon a $50 million contract and David Robertson a $46 million deal. Ten projected closers are expected to earn $8 million or more, enough to land you a middle-of-the-rotation starter. So Rivero could offer the Nationals an efficiently cheaper in-house option: he isn’t expected to hit arbitration until 2018, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

Rivero trained hard this offseason for what he hopes is an even better 2016. He runs a lot in between games like a starting pitcher, while also following the relievers’ training program. Rivero, who spends most of his offseason in Orlando, worked out six times a week near the Nationals’ spring training facility in Viera. He is eating healthier, in part because of the intestinal issue last season. He is ready to take another step.

“I always compare him with having the potential to become an Aroldis Chapman type,” said Edwin Jimenez, a Nationals minor league strength coach who also trained Rivero in the offseason at his Empire Sports Performance facility in Rockledge, Fla. “A big lefty, long arm span, his stride is pretty long. He’s not as tall as Chapman but the separation from his upper half and lower half is pretty similar … I’m really impressed with his explosiveness between his lower and upper body. That’s where all of his torque is coming from.”

DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY: 27 days

 

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