Final bullpen spot is Rodriguez’s to lose

VIERA, Fla. - Six spots in the Nationals’ bullpen are already set, barring injury, leaving an opening for just one more arm.

Henry Rodriguez, Fernando Abad, Cole Kimball and Christian Garcia have been mentioned as candidates for that final bullpen spot this spring. But in manager Davey Johnson’s mind, the job is Rodriguez’s to lose.

Asked today what he needs to see from Rodriguez this spring to convince him that the flame-throwing right-hander deserves a spot on the 25-man roster, Johnson delivered a simple reply.

“Healthy,” Johnson said. “He’s got great stuff, and if he’s healthy ... he pitched last year with some discomfort but before he got the discomfort, he was lights out. So his situation is just going slow with him, making sure he’s ready to go.”

Rodriguez is out of options, meaning that for the Nationals to send him to the minor leagues, they would need to pass him through waivers. It’s incredibly unlikely they’d be able to do so, because teams with more flexible 25-man rosters would line up to take a chance on a guy who can throw over 100 mph with two “plus” secondary pitches.

The Nats don’t want to lose Rodriguez, so they’ll give him every opportunity to stay on their active roster.

The issue with Rodriguez has always been whether he can control his exceptional stuff. In 2011, Rodriguez led the National League in wild pitches with 14 despite throwing just 65 2/3 innings. Last season, he threw 10 more wild pitches in 29 1/3 innings and walked 22 batters.

Early last season, however, Rodriguez was incredibly effective. He had a hot spring and then posted a 2.45 ERA in his first 16 regular season appearances, notching saves in eight of 10 chances and striking out 21 to seven walks in 14 2/3 innings. He then struggled mightily the rest of the way out, allowing 15 runs over his final 14 2/3 innings, with 15 walks to 10 strikeouts.

The Nationals point to an injury that Rodriguez suffered last season that they say led to him losing effectiveness as the year went on. The right-hander was placed on the DL twice during the season for separate ailments (a strained right index finger and a lower back strain), but then had surgery in late August to clean up a bone spur in his right elbow.

“He didn’t talk about it, but he had a big problem in there,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a lot of gamers that go out and play injured. I just want him healthy, give him a fair shake. ... We’re fortunate that he’s still here.”

Fans might get frustrated by Rodriguez’s high walk rate and his wild pitch numbers, but Johnson doesn’t want the 26-year-old Venezuelan backing off his velocity in an effort to improve his control.

“Last spring, he had better command than anyone on the staff and he was throwing 100 miles per hour,” Johnson said. “So I want him to back off of that? No. No thank you.”

Having been slowly eased into action this spring due to the elbow surgery and some biceps tightness, Rodriguez will make his Grapefruit League debut this afternoon against the Cardinals. Johnson had originally planned to give Rodriguez just one hitter this afternoon, but that plan might change.

“I’m just going to go hitter-to-hitter,” Johnson said. “He’s coming back after the arm injury. He threw the ball great the other day against hitters (in live batting practice) and I told him prior to that, I’d like to get him in a game quick and I was only going to give him probably one hitter. He felt so good that today, he says he may want more than one hitter.

“But we’ll see how it goes. I’m not going to push him.”

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