One intriguing left-handed bullpen option for 2014

PHOENIX - Hello from Arizona, where I’ll make sure to check with the Diamondbacks before taking a dip in their pool after any of the games this weekend.

After all, I don’t want Senator John McCain calling me an “overpaid, immature, arrogant, spoiled brat.”

Davey Johnson has said time and time again that he wishes that the Nationals had come into this season with more of a balanced bullpen.

The Nats broke camp with just one left-hander in their ‘pen - Zach Duke, a career-long starter with minimal experience working in relief. Duke appeared in 12 games with the Nats, posted an 8.71 ERA and was released in June.

It’s now no secret that the Nats will need to upgrade the left-handed side of their bullpen next season. They might do so by adding a southpaw via free agency or a trade, but they’ve also gotten to look at a few internal candidates over the last handful of months.

Ian Krol and Fernando Abad have gotten the bulk of the work, and they’ve both been up and down, pitching to ERAs of 3.95 and 2.92, respectively. But recently, the Nats have gotten a glimpse at another left-hander - Xavier Cedeno, who was claimed off waivers from the Astros, of all teams, back in late April.

Cedeno has made four stints with the Nationals this season, but prior to this most recent one, he had appeared in just two games with the big league club. He was an insurance policy, called up when the Nats needed an extra arm in a pinch, but rarely used. Since getting brought up as part of September call-ups, however, Cedeno has appeared in seven games, and allowed just a single run and four hits in four innings, posting a 2.25 ERA. He’s struck out five and walked none.

Perhaps just as important, Cedeno has shown an ability to get out tough left-handed hitters, turning the guy that was an afterthought for much of the season into a legitimate candidate for a spot in the Nats bullpen in 2014.

“For that role, he has shown the most aptitude for it and the best stuff,” Johnson said recently. “He knows what he wants to do, and he reads hitters pretty good. And he actually throws harder than I thought he did. I thought he was 89-90 (mph), and he’s low 90s and he can throw from about anywhere. I haven’t seen any left-handers really set on him yet. I didn’t even know much about him ‘til I got him up here.

“I think he’s shown everybody (that he can get the job done).”

Johnson’s question at this point is how Cedeno should best be used. Is he a left-handed specialist? Can he work full innings and get right-handers out? Cedeno’s splits show that he has allowed right-handed hitters to post a .391 average off him this season, but a large part of that damage came when he was with the Astros in April and pitched to an 11.37 ERA in five appearances.

Cedeno works with two breaking balls, a downward-moving curve to right-handed hitters and a sweeping slider-type curve to lefties. He impressed Triple-A Syracuse manager Tony Beasley this season, and Beasley told Johnson that of the three lefties in the Nats bullpen - all of whom Beasley had at Syracuse at one point this season - he felt Cedeno was the most polished.

“He’s had them all, and he had (Cedeno) highest up,” Johnson said.

For Cedeno, this recent stretch has provided validation, of sorts, that the strong work he put in at Syracuse was noticed. He posted a really impressive 1.31 ERA in 34 1/3 innings at Triple-A this season, and held lefties to a .164 batting average. But despite the solid numbers in the minors, it took a while for Cedeno to be given much of a chance his first few stints with the Nats. He’d get the call-up, sit in the bullpen watching the action, and then be sent back down to Syracuse.

“It’s always tough because we want to compete all the time, but there’s nothing we can do about it, you know?” Cedeno said. “Just keep battling and trying to stay as sharp as you can, so that when I do get in the game, have some good results.

“It’s been great (getting in games recently). Been feeling good this whole season, except for the first part with the Astros. But it’s been great. Feeling good. It’s always good to get in there and get the job done.”

What’s been different with the Nationals’ organization than early in the year when he was getting lit up with the Astros? Effort level, Cedeno says.

“I wasn’t concentrating enough early in the season, but once I got here, I got sent down to Triple-A and everything changed,” he said. “I was working really hard. My mindset was different. It was like some other pitcher. I was a different pitcher.

“When I got put on waivers, I started thinking. I really, really wanted to change. I want to be up here (in the majors), so I had to change. And I did. ... I was throwing the ball really good down (at Syracuse), getting lefties and hitters out. That gives you confidence. When they called me up in September, I was ready to go.”

Cedeno isn’t blind to the fact that this recent stretch has been an audition of sorts for him. He’s shown the Nats that he can get big league lefties out, and now has put himself in the mix for a bullpen spot next season.

“We always do that. We always feel that way,” Cedeno said. “We’re always trying to get somewhere in your career, and it’s definitely a plus for me to be up here and show them they can trust me. See what happens next year.”

On another note: My MASN colleague Johnny Holliday, who is one of the nicest people in the business, will be honored by the University of Maryland for his 35 years of service to the school on Tuesday, Oct. 1 at noon at the Gossett Football Team House. In addition, Holliday will be honored at halftime of the Maryland-Virginia game on Saturday, Oct. 12 at Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium.

Holliday hosts “Nats Xtra” on MASN, but he has also been the voice of the Terrapins for 35 years. I grew up listening to him call Terps games, and extend my sincere congratulations to him on hitting this milestone.

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