Washington Nationals’ pitchers are fighting for precious bullpen spots

Livan Hernandez owns the best parcel of land to view the procession of wicked arms at Washington Nationals spring training. He strolls behind the row of mounds in the bullpen, pauses behind a pitcher of his choice and leans on an orange fungo bat. He once stood on those pitching slabs, and the difference between then and now makes his eyes widen and his head roll back.

“A lot of arms,” Hernandez said. “Oh, my God.”

New Manager Matt Williams has fostered competition for spots throughout the Nationals’ roster, an effect that has rapidly become most noticeable in the bullpen. The Nationals invited a swath of shrewd veterans and rocket-armed prospects to compete for the final spots on the pitching staff. The Nationals have only two bullpen spots available, but team officials believe nine or 10 pitchers have a realistic chance to grab one of them between now and opening day.

“Throw them out there, and the best seven go,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “It’s a battle.”

The math may change over the next month, but at the moment five relievers — closer Rafael Soriano and Tyler Clippard, Jerry Blevins, Drew Storen and Craig Stammen — should have a place reserved. The list of pitchers who could grab one of the last two spots is much longer, and it could shift depending on how the race for the fifth spot in the starting rotation shakes out.

Veteran right-handers Josh Roenicke and Luis Ayala, a groundball specialist who played for the original 2005 Nationals, have enjoyed enough recent success to make themselves candidates. Xavier Cedeno tore through Class AAA Syracuse last season and could complement Blevins as a second left-hander. But so could Sammy Solis, a towering prospect two years removed from Tommy John surgery.

The best stuff belongs to Christian Garcia, whose fragile body has allowed him to wow coaches during two bullpen sessions this week with his fastball, change-up, sinker and curve. “All plus,” McCatty said. “All above plus.” Ross Ohlendorf, Tanner Roark and Ross Detwiler will find themselves in the competition if they fail to land the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Two years ago, Ryan Mattheus recorded key outs in a playoff game.

“It’s about who throws well and how we do the roster at the end of spring training and who’s going to be best for us,” Williams said. “All those things come into play. At this point, that’s an unknown. But depth is good. We have some lightning arms in our pitching staff. That’s a good thing.”

Williams refused to tip his hand, but he outlined how he wants to set up his bullpen. Last year, the Nationals headed north with only one left-handed reliever. Williams hopes the Nationals’ bullpen will contain at least two lefties this season.

“It’s ideal,” Williams said. “It’s ideal to have a lefty when you need him. We’ll look at it and see what our best club is. Ideally, everybody would like to have two lefties they can maneuver in and out of a game. We’ll see how it goes.”

If Detwiler grabs the fifth rotation spot, the competition to be the second left-handed could come down to Solis and Cedeno, who share little aside from a pitching arm.

Solis throws a big fastball and a biting curve. Cedeno, who last year struck out six of the 23 big league batters he faced, throws from three angles and twirls offspeed pitches in the mid-70s.

“I like that feel of him, certainly, against a lefty in a situational spot or a left-right-left situation,” Williams said.

Last year at this time, Solis had just started playing long toss as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. A second-round pick in 2010, Solis has no restrictions this spring, which has allowed him to gain confidence in his curveball.

“I’m excited about it,” Solis said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do with me or where they’re going to have me, reliever or starter, closer, whatever. But it’s just exciting to be here.”

Of those trying to make the Nationals’ opening day bullpen this year, Mattheus is the incumbent. He infamously derailed his 2013 season when, after a horrendous outing in San Diego, he slammed a locker and broke his right hand. Once he returned, Mattheus tried making up for lost time, applied too much pressure and punched up a 7.58 ERA in 23 appearances.

“It kind of gave me an edge coming into spring training, like all right, I’m going to prove that I belong there,” Mattheus said. “That’s what’s driving me now, to show everybody that I’m not the guy with the 6.30 ERA that punches lockers. I want to come back and be the guy that can contribute to a very good bullpen.”

Last year, then-manager Davey Johnson valued having two long relievers, one right-handed and one lefty. Williams wants only one. “We don’t need two of them, because we have starters than can go deep into the game,” Williams said.

If neither Ohlendorf nor Roark claims the fifth starting spot, they could fight for the role. While Ohlendorf will make $1.25 million guaranteed this season, both pitchers have minor league options remaining.

The Nationals did not accumulate their bullpen arms with only the opening day roster in mind. The competition will cede to the attrition of the season. Pitchers cast aside in March could have an impact in the summer.

“You got to have those guys, no matter who makes the club, that if anything happens, you have that depth,” McCatty said. “That’s what Rizz has done a great job of. We do have that. And that’s what makes you a good team.”