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Nationals bullpen will be at the center of attention in spring training

Like last year, when Matt Belisle worked his way into the bullpen with Blake Treinen and Oliver Perez, the Nationals hope a few veterans in camp will yield a few veterans in the bullpen. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Less than two weeks from now, when Nationals pitchers and catchers report to spring training, a strange combination of pitchers will lug their gear into the new clubhouse at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. The more familiar Nationals will feel right at home, though none has been there before, and many will find their navy blue bags with white W’s already in their locker, and old friends settling in nearby.

But other pitchers will feel less comfortable, their eyes darting around for the right locker, and perhaps an old friend. The need for camaraderie and the realities of competition will confront this year’s crop of non-roster relievers. The Nationals hope a deeper bullpen will result from the collision. The Nationals will try to build depth without gambling on the massive long-term deals even less heralded relievers are commanding this winter. They probably will not find an all-star set-up man. They might find a solid middle-innings reliever. If they do, they will have found great value.

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Tuesday, the Nationals announced the signings of veterans Matt Albers and Joe Nathan to minor league deals with invitations to spring training. Both Albers (seven seasons in the majors) and Nathan (377 saves) bring experience and credentials. So do fellow non-roster invitees Neal Cotts, Tim Collins and Vance Worley. Even Jacob Turner, a former first-round pick who has yet to find major league success, brings a big fastball and 79 games of major league experience to his name.

All of them, plus new 40-man additions such as Jimmy Cordero and Austin Adams, will meet new teammates with whom they are competing for what appear to be two bullpen spots (at most). Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen, Sammy Solis and Oliver Perez are locks. Koda Glover, if healthy, seems close to it. Trevor Gott could also compete for a spot. The Nationals generally bring in several experienced relievers each spring, seeking sparks at a volatile position. Even if they add another proven, established reliever on a major league contract — and there are still plenty of those and plenty of time to sign them — the competition for spots in the Nationals bullpen seems likely to be the center of attention this spring.

Realistically, Mike Rizzo, Dusty Baker and the rest likely have a few frontrunners in mind. For example, when Matt Belisle signed a minor league deal at the beginning of spring training last season, he seemed like a favorite to make the club because of his history with Baker and a lengthy track record. Indeed, Belisle fought through an early calf injury that limited his innings — but still made the club. Sean Burnett, who did not allow a run in nine spring training innings, did not.

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Preconceived notions of what each pitcher might bring permeate spring training competitions such as these. Frankly, they must, because spring training does not provide much room for evaluation. Of the 19 true relievers (not potential starters, so exclude A.J. Cole, Austin Voth, etc.) who began last spring in major league camp, some got as many as 13 2/3 innings of work, some got as few as two.

In other words, spring training competitions are an inexact science based on quick evaluations over short periods. The Nationals do use them to fill roster spots (see Clint Robinson and Dan Uggla two years ago, or the near addition of Brendan Ryan last spring before an injury derailed him). They do not use them to fill critical roster spots, and if one looks at this year’s crop of relief candidates, most seem best suited to middle or long relief, where low-cost, low-risk options make sense.

No one will expect Nathan, for example, to blow away the staff and seize the closer’s job at 42. But he does provide an interesting option for major league-ready depth. As the Nationals learned over Rizzo’s tenure, the bullpen that starts the season rarely makes it to the finish. The glut of proven veteran arms might yield an opening day National or two. If it provides season-long stalwarts, that will be a bonus.

So barring a big addition between now and the opening of camp, Treinen, Kelley and Solis will be the late-inning crew; none is likely to be usurped by a non-roster invitee. Glover will be the wild card, perhaps ready to ascend to late-inning duties, but nearly certain to get a shot in some innings, somewhere. Perez will be the guy brought in to face the big lefties.

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Perhaps none of the aforementioned relief corps candidates will make an impact this season. Perhaps a late-winter addition or late-summer acquisition will change things completely. Perhaps the non-roster invitees will look wholly mediocre. But what the Nationals have done by bringing in proven non-roster invitees is fostered a competition that could establish depth, a less conspicuous weakness than the lack of a proven ninth-inning man, but one that could influence their season just as much in the end.