This week, District Sports Page will take a look at the players that should comprise the 2013 roster of the Washington Nationals. Following a record-setting season last year that saw the Nats finish first in the N.L. East and advance to the playoffs for the first time since the relocation, GM Mike Rizzo has tweaked the roster a bit and expectations have never been higher for the organization, which is expected to be a legitimate World Series contender this season.
Monday, we looked at the starting pitchers. Today, it’s the bullpen.
PROJECTED OPENING DAY BULLPEN: Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Ryan Mattheus, Craig Stammen, Zach Duke, Henry Rodriguez/Christian Garcia
Rafael Soriano: Signed to an expensive free agent contract in January, Soriano saved 42 games in 46 chances last season with the New York Yankees while Mariano Rivera convalesced from his injuries. The 33-year old righty signed a two-year deal worth $28 million, making him the highest paid reliever in baseball. If there was any question about whether he would be the closer once joining the team, Soriano’s vesting option for 2015 would be triggered if he finishes 120 games over the term of the contract. There’s no way he would have signed a contract like that were he not given the impression he would be handling ninth inning duties.
Since it was reported that Nats owner Ted Lerner was “heavily involved” in the signing of Soriano, this may be an overreaction to the bullpen wearing down in the playoffs and Drew Storen’s collapse in Game Seven against the Cardinals. But on the field, Soriano brings a lot of talent. Last year for the Yankees he compiled a 2.26 ERA and 1.167 WHIP in 67 2/3 innings with a 7.3 H/9, 9.2 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9. He was an All-Star in 2010 with Tampa Bay when he led the American League with 45 saves and miniscule 1.73 ERA.
Drew Storen: Storen’s meltdown against the Cardinals is well-documented, but the deposed closer recovered from spring training surgery to remove loose bodies in his elbow to throw 30 1/3 innings in 37 regular season games in which he went 3-1 with four saves with a 2.37 ERA and 0.989 WHIP, striking out 7.1 per nine innings, while walking just 2.4 per nine. The addition of Soriano might put Storen into a position where he’d rather not be — setting up as opposed to closing — but the pickup should make the entire bullpen better by pushing each reliever previously on the staff up one inning. The Nats now boast a bullpen with three different pitchers that can boast about a 30-plus save season.
It also gives manager Davey Johnson plenty of options at the back of his bullpen. the veteran skipper likes to have an “A” and “B” bullpen, and having all these options ensures that he’ll have a fresh, experienced pitcher available for ninth inning duties every night. It also gives GM Mike Rizzo flexibility should the need arise to hit the trade market.
Tyler Clippard: Clippard was the pitcher Johnson turned to last spring when Storen went down with injury. The righty with the quirky delivery came through with flying colors, saving 32 games before yielding to Storen again very late in the season. Clippard, 28 this season, was an All-Star set-up man in 2011 when he was practically unhittable (4.9 H/9, 10.6 K/9, 2.6 BB/) so it wasn’t a shock his overall numbers would be a tick less the following season. Still, the heavily-relied upon reliever put up standard numbers for him and actually reduced his home run rate, making him an effective late-inning option. One question about Clippard is his usage: he’s thrown more than 72 innings each of the last two seasons, making him a candidate for burnout or injury.
Ryan Mattheus: Davey called Mattheus’ number 66 times last season, and his confidence in the 29-year old grew as the season progress as he had Mattheus pitch in higher-leverage innings as the season went along. So why did Johnson leave Mattheus in the pen in Game Seven against the Cardinals while calling on starter Edwin Jackson instead? We’ll never really know why Davey played that hunch, but Mattheus should see plenty of opportunity to pitch in the sixth and seventh innings this season for his manager. Mattheus went 5-3 with a 2.85 ERA and 1.146 WHIP last season. He doesn’t really put up great strikeout numbers (5.6/9), but he doesn’t walk many either.
Craig Stammen: Stammen has been asked to a do a little bit of everything for the Nats since his MLB debut in 2009, but he’s found a home in the bullpen, pitching some important innings for the Nats in middle relief. He has the stamina of a starter, so he can pitch multiple innings if need be, as his 88 1/3 innings in 59 appearances will attest. Last year, the affable Ohioan went 6-1 with a 2.35 ERA and 1.200 WHIP, striking out 8.9 per nine innings. His status in the team is secure and should fill the same role this season as last, even if some around the game still think he could be a viable starting pitcher on half the teams in baseball.
Zach Duke: As of this post, Duke is slated to be the only left-hander in the Nats bullpen to start the season. The 30-year old spent much of 2012 at AAA-Syracuse as an emergency option for the starting rotation. When that didn’t materialize, he was called up when rosters expanded as sort of reward for being the good soldier in the minor leagues, where he went 15-5 with a 3.51 ERA in 26 starts. In the eight games he got in September, Duke impressed, allowing just two earned runs in 13 2/3 innings pitched (1.32). When Rizzo allowed Sean Burnett to walk away via free agency, Duke became the only option and was given an Major League deal and a spot on the 40-man roster. He’s almost a lock to make the opening day roster unless something really bad happens in spring training.
Henry Rodriguez: Yes, Hot Rod is still in the Nats plans. The man can light up the radar gun and has an unhittable slider –when he can throw it under control. The problem is just that: in his entire career, he’s never been able to control any of his pitches. In 2011 he led the league in wild pitches even though he only threw 65 2/3 innings. He was well on his way again last season, with 10 WPs in just 29 1/3 innings, but an elbow injury put him on the shelf for the rest of the season. Each of the last two years, Rodriguez has struck out over nine batters per nine innings, but also walked over six per nine, just an astronomical number. Rodriguez is supposed to be healthy for the start of spring training and is out of options, so it will be interesting if he pitches his way on — or off — the roster in March.
Christian Garcia: Garcia was a revelation last season for the Nats. He came in as a reclamation project. a one-time heralded Yankees prospect whose career was delayed by a series of arm injuries and surgeries. But he showed healthy in the minors for the first time in a while, almost doubling his previous season appearances and being completely untouchable, going 2-1 with 21 saves with a 0.86 ERA and .917 WHIP over 52 1/3 innings in two levels of the minors, including stellar 11.4 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9. Perhaps the most remarkable stat was that he did not allow a single home run in 45 appearances. He picked right up from that once he was summoned late in the season for the big club, allowing just three earned runs in 12 2/3 innings (2.13 ERA) with 10.7 K/9 and 1.4 BB/9. The Nats have plans to try to stretch him out in a starting role in March, but his performance last season, and Rodriguez’ volatility, could force the Nats’ hand and carry him on the roster come opening day.
OTHER CANDIDATES: The Nats pen is very solid, so other than the last man there won’t be a whole lot of competition. But there are a few that could get a look at some point due to injury or attrition.
Ryan Perry has a great pedigree and MLB experience, but lack of control was putting his career in jeopardy. The Nats send him down after seven lousy appearances at the start of the season and asked him to start in AA to re-learn how to pitch. He responded well (3.07 ERA in 24 appearances, including 13 starts), but his walk rate went back up once promoted to AAA (5.2 BB/9 in 12 innings).
Cole Kimball is still rehabbing from major shoulder surgery and probably will spend much — if not all — of the season in the minors. He only made six appearances in rehab last season across four levels of the minors.
Erik Davis was protected by the Nats in the Rule 5 draft, added to the 40-man roster in order to keep him in the organization. He reached Syracuse last year (eight appearances) but spend much of his summer in Harrisburg. Overall, he went 8-3 with a 2.71 ERA and 1.247 WHIP in 48 appearances. He’ll be slated for Syracuse but he’s a name to watch over the summer. He’s playing his way into prospect status.
Bill Bray and Fernando Abad, two left-handed relievers, were both invited to spring training on minor league contracts. Bray was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 2004, made his MLB debut for the Nats in June ’06, then traded tot he Reds in the deal that brough Felipe Lopez, Austin Kearns and Ryan Wagner in July ’06. Bray played parts of six season with the Reds and overall he’s gone 13-12 with a 3.74 ERA in 258 career appearances. Bray elected free agency after a disappointing 2012 season in which he only pitched in 14 games (5.19 ERA) and signed with the Nats in December, hoping to resurrect his career with the team that drafted him.
Abad, 27, has played parts of three seasons with the Houston Astros, going 1-11 with a 5.10 ERA in 88 games, striking out just 65 in 84 2/3 innings.