NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Since there’s a dearth of left-handed relief pitching available on the free agent market, the Nationals are going to have to be creative when finding southpaws to round out their bullpen. Sean Burnett is angling for a four-year deal, which only works against his return and complicates general manager Mike Rizzo’s to-do list at the Winter Meetings.
Right now, the prospects of Burnett re-signing and the available left-handers present a bit of a conundrum for the Nationals. They’re not about to hand out a big-bucks, long-term deal to a left-handed set-up man, though they’re equally unimpressed with the options out there.
Aside from Burnett, here are the available left-handed bullpen options (with ages listed in parentheses), courtesy of MLBTradeRumors.com:
Randy Choate (37)
Dana Eveland (29)
Pedro Feliciano (35) - $4.5MM club option
Mike Gonzalez (35)
J.P. Howell (28)
Rich Hill (32)
Will Ohman (35)
Manny Parra (30)
Rafael Perez (31)
J.C. Romero (37)
Daniel Schlereth (27)
Chris Seddon (29)
George Sherrill (36)
Hisanori Takahashi (38)
So what will the Nationals do?
At least for the time being, they’ll focus on re-signing a holdover from last year’s effective bullpen and bringing back a guy who got a cup of coffee at the end of the regular season, according to an industry source.
Michael Gonzalez, who pitched to a 3.03 ERA in 47 relief outings after signing as a free agent on May 8, could inherit Burnett’s role as the primary lefty out of the ‘pen. At 34 and with his days as a closer in the rear-view mirror, Gonzalez would likely accept a more specialized role if it meant getting the two-year deal he’s seeking after his contract with the Nats expired. He’s a Scott Boras client, and the Nationals have a long history of working well with the notoriously tough agent.
Over his career, Gonzalez has held left-handed hitters to a .209 batting average. Last season, his numbers against lefty hitters were pretty stellar - a .179 average against, 23 strikeouts and seven walks in 75 plate appearances. His experience closing games - something Burnett was called on to help with in a pinch - could be valuable.
When the Nats non-tendered Tom Gorzelanny on Friday night, many interpreted the move as a signal that the left-handed long man wouldn’t be back. He may not, but Gorzelanny was a favorite of manager Davey Johnson because he could start a game if necessary - and that counts for something. Arbitration might have yielded Gorzelanny a deal with about $2.8 million, and the Nats could try to re-sign him for less or move in a different, less expensive, direction.
If they cut ties with the 30-year-old, who went 4-2 with a 2.88 ERA and one save in 45 games (including one start), the Nationals have a potential replacement in Zach Duke, a veteran lefty they stashed at Triple-A Syracuse for much of last year, albeit as a starting pitcher. The 29-year-old owns a 49-74 record with a 4.52 ERA in eight major league campaigns. But in 21 career relief appearances, Duke is 2-0 with a 2.98 ERA and a 1.299 WHIP over 42 1/3 innings.
He rediscovered his old form - Duke was an All-Star for the Pirates in 2009, when he went 11-16 with a 4.06 ERA in 32 starts - last season at Syracuse. Pitching every fifth day for the Chiefs, Duke posted a 15-5 record and 3.51 ERA in 26 starts. That earned him a September summons to Washington, where he made eight relief appearances, going 1-0 with a 1.32 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings.
Duke was on a minor league deal with the Nationals last year and is a free agent. He might get multiple offers, but few present him an opportunity to lock down an important role with a defending divisional champion with World Series aspirations.
Whatever the Nationals do at the Winter Meetings will depend on the domino effect accompanying their biggest need: figuring out whether to re-sign free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche. But the few legitimate left-handed bullpen options make the Gonzalez/Duke tandem likely to return in 2013 - because the Nationals are familiar with the players and because they won’t cost a bundle.