A battle for bullpen spots

As a whole, the Nationals bullpen pitched to a 3.56 ERA in 2013, 17th-best in the majors.

Nats relievers had a .252 batting average against (24th-best), put up a 1.29 WHIP (16th-best) and allowed a .679 OPS against (12th-best).

Those aren't horrendous numbers, but it was clear that the Nats' bullpen dropped off from 2012, when that unit ranked seventh in the league with a 3.23 ERA and delivered big innings down the stretch in the team's postseason run.

Improving the bullpen will be one of general manager Mike Rizzo's top goals this offseason. He knows he needs to add a left-hander who can be trusted in late-inning situations, and needs to shore up a couple of more spots to provide new manager Matt Williams with enough options that he can trust in tight ballgames.

Assuming the Nats go with the standard five-man bench in 2014, that will leave them with seven roster spots for relievers. The way I see it, if the Nats don't end up trading any of the relievers they currently have under contract, four of those spots are already locked up, leaving three up for grabs.

Here's how I have the bullpen broken down at this point, with the last group of players consisting of those not currently on the 40-man roster - those who are long shots for bullpen roles in 2014 but have an outside chance of earning a spot.

Locks
Rafael Soriano
Tyler Clippard
Drew Storen
Craig Stammen

Maybes
Ryan Mattheus
Ross Ohlendorf
Fernando Abad
Ian Krol
Xavier Cedeno
Tyler Robertson
Tanner Roark
Erik Davis
Christian Garcia
Nathan Karns

Non-roster options
Sammy Solis
Aaron Barrett
Richie Mirowski

This is, of course, far from a finished list. The Nats will add a handful of other relievers over the next few months, some on guaranteed big league deals, some who will come aboard as minor league free agents with an invitation to big league spring training.

If we decide to set aside two bullpen spots for left-handers (maybe a free agent addition and then one of the five lefties listed above in Abad, Krol, Cedeno, Robertson and Solis), that leaves a good bit of competition for what could be the Nats' final bullpen spot.

Mattheus has said that he feels he'll need to win a job in 2014 after a very rough 2013, and that's likely the case. Ohlendorf was excellent in relief, but isn't completely used to the uncertain workload a reliever has to deal with. Roark dominated out of the 'pen in 2013 before dominating in the rotation, and if he doesn't win a spot as a starter, he could find himself back in a relief role. Davis looked good in spurts and reminded many of a poor man's Clippard with the goggles and lights-out changeup. Garcia lost the 2013 season to injuries, but flashed tremendous ability down the stretch in 2012. Karns made his big league debut as a starter in 2013, but some within the organization feel he could make more of an impact as a reliever.

Things could obviously change a lot between now and when pitchers and catchers report to Viera, Fla., in mid-February. Trades are always a possibility (Storen's name has been kicked around as a trade option) and Rizzo won't be afraid to shake things up and add more talent to the bullpen pool.

Unlike last spring, we could have quite a battle for bullpen spots this upcoming spring training, among the guys listed above and those who will soon be added to that group.

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