LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The hotel lobby at the Winter Meetings is a magical place. Think of it as nirvana for baseball geeks, a confusing confluence of scouts, executives, agents, players, former players and media types, all trying to sniff out the latest shred of a rumor without being too obvious.
This morning’s tour of the Dolphin Resort at Disney brought a lot of chatter about interest in two Nationals relievers - right-handers Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard. Most teams in the majors are looking to upgrade their bullpens, and roughly half of them have their attentions trained on the back end of the ‘pen, where they hope to secure a set-up man or a closer.
The Nats have those and a rather full bullpen, but just because they possess a marketable commodity doesn’t mean there’s a match. After all, general manager Mike Rizzo isn’t going to trade just for the sake of trading, and incoming rookie manager Matt Williams is probably looking at his impressive collection of relievers and salivating at the set-up he’s already got penciled in for the sixth through ninth innings.
If right-hander Ryan Mattheus rebounds, he’s probably targeted for sixth-inning duty. Storen, Clippard and righty Rafael Soriano are locked in for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings (though Storen and Clippard may be interchangeable, depending on matchups). Throw in the left-handed specialist Rizzo hopes to obtain - he hinted yesterday that the Nats might be waiting until the market shakes out a little after the first of the year to make that move - and that’s a formidable relief corps.
The Cubs, Tigers and Rockies are being linked to the Nationals, hoping to pry away either Storen or Clippard. More and more, moves to get effective seventh- and eight-inning arms are paying huge dividends. Witness the four teams in the respective League Championship Series in 2013, all of whom were using a guy who was setting up at the beginning of the season after their closers either failed or were hurt. Simply put, bullpen depth is more than important for contending teams - it’s critical.
So where does that leave the Nationals? In quite an enviable position, actually.
Both Storen and Clippard have experience closing, though neither is targeted for that duty in 2014, unless Soriano has pitched three days in a row and Williams thinks he needs a breather. Clippard saved 32 games in 2012, posted a 2.41 ERA and 0.859 WHIP last year and has demonstrated the ability to get both right-handed and left-handed hitters out. Storen saved 43 games in 2011, missed half of 2012 after undergoing surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow and struggled enough last year to necessitate a two-week tune-up session at Triple-A Syracuse. His 4.52 ERA and 1.36 WHIP don’t scream dominance, but he was definitely a better pitcher after the August demotion, posting a 1.39 ERA and 0.960 WHIP after being recalled.
Both will have their salaries determined by arbitration if the Nationals cannot come to terms with them. Clippard, 28, is expected to earn upwards of $6.2 million through arbitration, according to MLBTradeRumors.com - a pretty penny, except that similar relievers this offseason have been pulling in multiple-year deals with an average annual value of $6-$7 million. Storen could be in line for a $3.6 million deal.
The salary numbers hint that Clippard might be easier for the Nats to part with, assuming they’d use the savings to fill other bullpen and bench holes. But Storen’s 2013 struggles make him an interesting target, though teams would be hoping to buy low on a guy they hope will pitch more like the 2011-era Storen.
Will the Nats move one? Both? Neither?
Right now, Rizzo is in the catbird’s seat, possessing arms other teams covet. Trading one or both would mean retooling the bullpen, considered a strength behind a potentially dominant rotation. Both are immensely popular in the clubhouse, though Clippard publicly skewered Rizzo when his close friend Storen was demoted last August (Rizzo later said he had no trouble with Clippard speaking his mind). Fans love both pitchers, but that’s hardly a consideration. If - and only if - Rizzo thinks he can improve the Nationals, he’ll move either Clippard or Storen. If he can’t make such a deal, both will be back, setting up for Soriano.