Clippard’s stock rose, but so will his price tag

Maybe the Giants are this year’s Cardinals.

Two straight San Francisco victories over St. Louis in win-or-go-home situations have forced the National League Championship Series to a decisive Game 7 tonight. That’s now five victories in must-win spots for the Giants during this postseason, which brings back memories of the high-wire act the Cardinals walked during their 2011 World Series run.

The Giants will stay at home for Game 7 with Matt Cain taking the mound against Kyle Lohse. Should be plenty exciting, that is if you’re not still in too much pain to watch postseason baseball after what happened in the nation’s capital 10 nights ago.

A strength that both the Giants and Cardinals have shown during the NLCS is one that was shared by the Nationals during the 2012 season - a deep and talented bullpen.

If the Nats handed out a Reliever of the Year award, Tyler Clippard would most likely take home the hardware this season. The 27-year-old right-hander stepped into the closer’s role for the first time in his career after injuries and ineffectiveness knocked out Drew Storen, Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez. And Clippard brought some much-needed stability to the ninth inning for most of the season.

He finished with 32 saves in 36 chances and an ERA of 3.72, but fans shouldn’t let that final ERA or Clippard’s last month of the season overshadow what was for the most part an exceptional year.

Over a stretch of 14 1/3 innings from late May to June, Clippard was nearly unhittable. He saved 12 games, didn’t allow a run and only surrendered a single hit. Only once the calendar turned into September did Clippard begin to falter due to mechanical issues and poor location. He lost the closer’s job to Storen, but battled back to pitch fairly well over three postseason appearances.

tyler-clippard-sidebar.jpgClippard is arbitration-eligible this offseason and the Nats control his rights through the 2015 campaign. The question now is whether the Nationals value him enough to keep him around as his salary moves north in a hurry.

Because of the season he put up this year, Clippard will earn a hefty raise in arbitration and make far more than the $1.65 million he brought in during 2012.

The Nationals have a lot of talented right-handed relievers in their bullpen in front of Storen, a group that includes Ryan Mattheus, Craig Stammen and Christian Garcia, who could be turned into a starter. Due to that depth and Clippard’s rising price tag, the Nats could choose to capitalize on Clippard’s strong 2012 season and ship him to a team in need of a closer or top set-up guy.

Of course, the Nats also know full well how important it is to have a number of options in the late innings. They never expected to need to try four guys in the closer’s role this season, but found themselves prepared for such a situation.

The price for a quality set-up guy has risen over the last few years, and Clippard is one of the best in the business. He’s as durable as they come (at least, he has been to this point) and the Nats showed this season that they’re not afraid to pay a large amount to a non-closer if they feel he brings value (see: Tom Gorzelanny).

This could be an interesting area to watch this offseason. It was a crowded Nats bullpen in 2012, and while I’d be a bit surprised to see Clippard not return in 2013, it’s certainly a possibility he’s wearing a new uniform next season.

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