SARASOTA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals could begin the regular season without closer Drew Storen as he recovers from elbow inflammation, potentially leaving the job of saving early-season victories to veteran Brad Lidge and second-year flamethrower Henry Rodriguez.
Manager Davey Johnson did not rule out Storen recovering in time for opening day, but he is preparing to start the year without the 24-year-old who saved 43 games in 2011 and entered this spring as Washington’s clear-cut closer.
Storen flew to Washington on Thursday for an MRI exam on his right elbow after he experienced lingering soreness in his biceps and triceps. The test revealed inflammation in his joint but no structural damage to the ulnar collateral ligament, which if torn necessitates Tommy John surgery.
Doctors prescribed rest for Storen. He will not even play catch for four or five days, Johnson said. Johnson called Storen’s throwing program “very conservative,” with the Nationals intent not to rush him back to pitch by opening day. Storen last pitched in a spring training game March 7.
“This time of year, you take it extremely slow,” Johnson said. “He needs to be 100 percent ready. . . . I’m going to prepare for the possibility that he doesn’t break with us. I’m not saying it’s out of the question. But I’m going to prepare my staff for the possibility Storen might not be my closer for those games.”
In Storen’s potential absence, the Nationals would use Lidge or Rodriguez — and not all-star set-up man Tyler Clippard — to close games. Johnson does not want to remove Clippard from his high-leverage role, in which he can pitch multiple innings or enter in the middle of an inning to escape jams.
“It’s hard to replace what he does,” Johnson said. “What he did last year is at least as important, if not more important, than your closer. You want to avoid weakening two positions.”
Clippard has ranked among the best, most durable relievers in baseball for the past two seasons, throwing more innings than any major league reliever over that span. Last year, Clippard had a 1.83 ERA in 881 / 3 innings.
Clippard has not chafed about his versatile role, but he would like to pitch the ninth inning eventually.
“I want to be a closer,” Clippard said earlier this spring. “I think everyone as a reliever in baseball, if you’re not striving to be the best at your craft, you’re not progressing as a player. In most cases, the best relievers are closers. So, yeah, I want to be a closer.”
In Lidge and Rodriguez, the Nationals have disparate options to fill in for Storen. The Nationals signed Lidge, 35, late this winter as a free agent after he spent four seasons with Philadelphia. He owns 223 career saves, and in 2008 he recorded the final out of the World Series.
The Nationals acquired Rodriguez in December 2010 in a trade from Oakland. Rodriguez threw the hardest fastball in the majors last year, and once he began finding the strike zone with it he became a weapon in the back end of the bullpen. Rodriguez saved two of the Nationals’ final seven games last year, a cameo Johnson views as important experience.
The Nationals took at least a minor gamble on Lidge’s health when they signed him, and so far it has paid off. During spring training last year, Lidge underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and did not pitch in the majors until late July.
After returning, he relied heavily on his slider as his fastball velocity dropped to 89.3 mph on average, down from 93.6 in 2009. In his initial outings back, Lidge threw his fastball around 87 and 88 mph. By the time the season ended, he had upped his velocity to 91 and 92.
This spring, Lidge has struck out seven and issued no walks in five scoreless innings. After his first healthy spring training in four years, Lidge expects to match the velocity he reached at the end of 2011.
“There’s nothing prohibiting me from throwing inside or outside, throwing sliders wherever,” Lidge said last week. “I was a little tentative when I came back last year. The way I finished off the year last year, command-wise, I feel like I’m there right now. . . . If I’m throwing 90 with command of my slider, that’s good. Anything above that is gravy.
“I’m feeling real good right now. To be honest, it’s kind of come around a little bit quicker than I thought it would, which is obviously great. My arm strength is kind of going the right way.”
Rodriguez has been dominant this spring, picking up where he left off at the end of last season, when he allowed three earned runs and struck out 26 in his final 22 games. In seven scoreless innings this spring, including one Saturday, Rodriguez has given up two hits and two walks while striking out six.
Rodriguez closed on occasion at Class AAA with Oakland and gained experience in the ninth during Venezuelan winter ball. “It’s not a big deal for me between the eighth and ninth,” Rodriguez said through teammate Andres Blanco. “I’m going out there to do my job.”
Rodriguez’s transformation from thrower to precise pitcher has astonished the Nationals. Rodriguez said he is currently pitching with the best control of his career. After Rodriguez pitched late last week, pitching coach Steve McCatty asked Johnson, “Can you believe that Henry has the best command on the staff?”
“He’s in a good place right now,” Johnson said.
If Storen misses extended time, it could also open the door for another reliever to join the Nationals’ bullpen, most likely Ryan Mattheus or veteran Chad Durbin. Mattheus served a valuable role last season, posting a 2.81 ERA in 32 innings, and Johnson trusts him. Durbin signed a minor league deal this winter with an opt-out clause, meaning he could leave the Nationals if they do not put him on their major league roster.