Could Clippard or Storen be dealt this offseason?

Outside of finding a new manager, which clearly tops the Nationals’ list of offseason priorities, general manager Mike Rizzo has said that one of his biggest goals this winter will be to bolster the bullpen.

As a team this season, Nationals relievers pitched to a 3.56 ERA, 17th-best in the majors, and had a .252 batting average against, which ranked 24th in the bigs.

Compare that to 2012, when the Nats bullpen posted a 3.23 ERA (seventh) and .231 batting average against (seventh), and you can see why Rizzo feels a need to make some changes in the ‘pen to get things back on track entering the 2014 campaign.

But while adding relief arms will be a priority over the next few months, it’s entirely possible that we end up seeing one of the Nationals’ talented late-inning relievers - namely Tyler Clippard or Drew Storen - traded away this offseason.

That, of course, seems to be counterproductive on the surface. If you’re trying to improve the bullpen, why would you want to trade away one of the guys you’ve trusted to get big outs for you late in games in recent years? Why would you want to ship a guy off to another team after he’s proven to be a big part of the bullpen and locked down games in the ninth inning in the past?

Those are fair questions, especially when they pertain to Clippard. The 28-year-old right-hander just finished another tremendous season in relief, marking his fourth straight year appearing in 70-plus games and pitching at least 70 innings. This season, he posted a stellar 2.41 ERA and allowed only 37 hits in 71 innings, a statistic that still amazes me. He’s become one of the top late-inning guys in the game.

Then there’s Storen, who as I wrote last week, had a rocky 2013 season but finished having pitched to a 1.40 ERA over his final 21 games.

Clippard saved 32 games for the Nats in 2012. Storen notched 43 saves in 2011.

The problem with both of these guys at this point is that their price tags keep rising. Both Clippard and Storen will get another raise this offseason via arbitration, leaving the Nats set to pay a fairly hefty sum for two pitchers who again aren’t in line to enter the season as the team’s closer. Rafael Soriano is still on board for 2014 and will make $14 million to be the Nats’ ninth-inning guy.

Clippard made $4 million in 2013, and will see that price take a pretty nice jump again this winter. Storen made $2.5 million in his first year of arbitration last year, and could make north of $4 million in 2014.

That could mean upwards of $10 million going towards two set-up guys.

Despite his price tag, Clippard would have a lot of value around the league right now if the Nats were to look to deal him. He’s been one of the most dependable relievers in the game the last four years, is coming off a tremendous season and has closing experience. He’s durable, gets lefties out and is a well-respected guy in the clubhouse. His value, in fact, has probably never been higher, and for a team looking for a closer, Clippard would not only be a strong option, but still a relatively cheap one, as closers go.

Storen has a few more blemishes on his file, including the elbow surgery last year and the up-and-down 2013 season, but he’s still just 26 and has shown that he can be a top-notch late-inning guy when he’s right.

Now let me make it clear that I’m not advocating that the Nationals should trade either Clippard or Storen. I’m not the one cutting the checks here (thank goodness), and so these two guys getting a raise through arbitration doesn’t faze me any. If the Lerner family and Rizzo are comfortable seeing the Nats’ payroll rise a bit more this offseason, with some of that added money heading toward Clippard and Storen, so be it.

But if the Nats would rather use that money elsewhere - say, to improve the bench - then Rizzo might be inclined to trade either Clippard or Storen, freeing up some cash.

Also, while Clippard’s been durable so far, it’s fair to wonder how all these innings will affect him down the road. If the Nats have doubts about whether Clippard’s 296 appearances over the last four years will catch up to him in the near future, they could look to trade him now.

Before anyone asks, Soriano is not likely to be traded this offseason. Teams won’t be beating down the Nats’ door to acquire a $14 million closer who had a bit of a shaky 2013 season. The Nats decided last offseason that Soriano was worth paying to be their closer, and now he’s their guy.

But the guys in front of him aren’t guaranteed to be around next season. If the Nats can get younger, cheaper, controllable arms in return for Clippard or Storen, or can add another bat to the equation, then they might look to do so.

The Nats want to bolster the bullpen for 2014, but the idea of trading one of their top relievers isn’t out of the question. It will be interesting to see whether Rizzo looks into doing so over the next few months.

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