The forgotten man in the bullpen

By the time pitchers and catchers report to spring training some six to seven weeks from now, we’ll already have a pretty good idea how the bulk of the Nationals’ bullpen will be put together.

Barring injuries to any of these players, it’s pretty safe to slot Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen, Ryan Mattheus and Zach Duke into the ‘pen. Another left-hander (J.P. Howell? Michael Gonzalez? Bill Bray?) is almost certain to join that group, as well.

A lot can change between now and opening day, and nothing is a given in this league. Any one of those pitchers could stink up the joint in spring training and find himself on the outside of the 25-man roster looking in.

But given the roster the Nationals are working with at this moment, it appears six of the likely seven bullpen spots are at least tentatively accounted for. That leaves one open spot, and there’s a guy on the 40-man roster who might have the inside track on that final relief gig.

That guy is Henry Rodriguez.

The ifs on Rodriguez are large ifs, indeed. If Rodriguez is healthy, he could be key option for manager Davey Johnson. If Rodriguez can develop a better sense of control, he could become an elite reliever.

Nationals fans have seen the two sides of Rodriguez. They know that when he’s able to find the plate, he’s nearly unhittable. Rodriguez started the 2012 season recording eight saves in his first 16 appearances, putting up a 2.45 ERA, striking out 21 and walking seven in 14 2/3 innings. That included a stretch in which Rodriguez faced 25 batters and didn’t allow a hit.

Nats fans also know that when Rodriguez struggles, he struggles in a big way. The flame-throwing righty pitched to a 9.20 ERA over his final 19 appearances, striking out just 10 and walking 15 in 14 2/3 innings. Rodriguez also finished his 2012 season with 10 wild pitches in 29 1/3 innings.

How much of that can be blamed on Rodriguez’s health? It’s hard to say for sure.

The 25-year-old was placed on the disabled list twice last season, once with a strained right index finger and once with a lower back strain. Rodriguez also had surgery to clean up a bone spur in his throwing elbow in August, an unexpected procedure which the Nats believe might get the right-hander back on track in 2013.

Johnson said after the operation that the bone spur will be factored in when evaluating Rodriguez’s up-and-down season. If Rodriguez was pitching through pain, that could explain some of the wildness which he showed when pitching in July, when he really hit a rough patch.

Complicating the situation is that Rodriguez is out of options, meaning the Nationals cannot send him to the minors to work on his control. Their options are to carry him on the 25-man roster out of spring training, put him on the disabled list or cut him loose.

The last thing the Nationals want is to give up on Rodriguez too soon and watch him figure it all out and become a dominant late-inning reliever somewhere else. General manager Mike Rizzo has said his biggest regret as a GM was not sticking with reliever Joel Hanrahan longer. All Hanrahan has done is put up back-to-back All-Star seasons in Pittsburgh the last two years; he was traded today to Boston, where he might be closing in the tough American League East in 2013.

Rodriguez has the stuff to become an elite reliever. His fastball tops triple-digits, and his changeup and curveball are excellent complementary pitches. But does he have the ability to stay healthy and possess the mental toughness to put it all together?

We might find out this spring.

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