There’s little doubt that the bullpen was one of the Nationals’ strong points in 2011. The numbers are impressive - a 31-23 record, 98 holds, 49 saves in 76 opportunities, 44 home runs allowed in 520 2/3 innings, 72 percent of first batters faced by relievers retired, a 3.20 ERA - and yielded an All-Star nod for Tyler Clippard.
So going into 2012, is it fair to expect more of the same? Relief is among the most volatile spots on any roster, and there are few guarantees that last year’s stellar efforts will again be this year’s shutdown performances. For whatever reason, relievers are prone to wild swings. Like when relievers allowed homers in four straight games between May 10-13 last season, then allowed four in the final 24 games starting Sept. 4.
Unlike past seasons - when the Nationals pulled a plethora of guys with working arms into spring training and asked them to compete for bullpen jobs - there won’t be an open casting call a month from now at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla. In fact, there may not be many jobs up for grabs at all.
Let’s assume that the manager Davey Johnson opts for a seven-man relief corps, which would give him a five-man bench (if he wants one less bat, he can add another arm). Normally, teams are still stretching out the starting pitchers at the back end of the rotation as the season begins, and an extra reliever could come in handy. There are often a few off days built into the first few weeks of the schedule, but the 2012 version has the Nats opening in Chicago on April 5, taking the next day off in case weather complicates the opener and then playing 16 consecutive days before their next break, an April 23 travel day before opening a six-game West Coast swing to San Diego and Los Angeles. That configuration could be fluid, especially since the Nats will probably need a fifth starting pitcher right out of the chute to help limit Stephen Strasburg’s innings.
So how does the bullpen look? The back end is relatively easy to plot out - Sean Burnett or Henry Rodriguez in the seventh, Clippard working the eighth and Drew Storen in the ninth, closing out games. If the Nationals’ starters can do deep into games - like last year, when members of the rotation went at least five innings for the season’s first 30 games - it will set the back-end relievers up nicely.
Johnson has stated a preference to have at least two long men - one right-handed, one left-handed - working out of the ‘pen. He may, however, have to be creative since right now it looks like there will be two southpaws in long relief. Tom Gorzelanny will get one slot - and he worked well in that role last year, posting a 2-0 record and 2.42 ERA in relief - and the loser of the Ross Detwiler/John Lannan battle for the fifth spot in the rotation would be the other. If Johnson wants a righty to go multiple innings, he may turn to Ryan Mattheus, who has recovered from shoulder problems that interrupted a strong rookie season. But he’ll have to be stretched out - last year, Mattheus worked at least two innings only twice, and had only four other outings requiring him to get more than three outs.
That’s seven - Mattheus, Gorzelanny, either Detwiler or Lannan, Rodriguez, Burnett, Clippard and Storen. There are four right-handers and three left-handers, affording enough flexibility for Johnson to play matchup if he needs to. There’s no one at least 30 - Gorzelanny hits that milestone July 12, and Burnett on Sept. 17 - which translates into a decidedly young group minus the veteran presence of guys like Miguel Batista or Todd Coffey in recent years.
That means no room for right-hander Ryan Perry, obtained in December from the Tigers in exchange for Collin Balester. Though mainly a short reliever, Perry can work multiple innings. But he also has a minor league option left, so he doesn’t have to stick. Right-hander Craig Stammen will also have trouble sticking, even though he would perfectly fit the right-handed long relief role. He could be an important swingman if someone gets hurt. And lefty Atahualpa Severino seems ticketed again as a Triple-A insurance policy. Righty Cole Kimball is still recovering from shoulder surgery and will hit the 60-day disabled list, probably on the first round of cuts, but could factor into the mix later in the season.
Last year, the Nationals brought nine non-roster pitchers to camp, and there were eight more occupying lockers in 2010. This time around, there are three - right-handers Jeff Fulchino, Waldis Joaquin and Rafael Martin - that seem like organizational depth players. The days of trotting out guys in the twilight of their careers (Eddie Guardado, Sean Estes), potentially workable parts (Joel Peralta, Chad Gaudin) and hangers-on (Cla Meredith, Ryan Speier) appear to be over.
There will be fewer decisions for Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be any less vigilant about perusing the waiver wire. Guys get hurt, pitchers can’t get anyone out (remember Clippard and Storen’s struggles last spring) and someone unexpected may force a difficult decision. All in all, though, last year’s strength is shaping up for a repeat performance.