Many factors need to be considered in Nats’ bullpen battle

VIERA, Fla. - Even prior to yesterday, the Nationals had a great deal of competition for the final couple of spots in their bullpen.

The signing of left-handed reliever Michael Gonzalez to a minor league deal only adds to that competition.

With Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Jerry Blevins and Craig Stammen having a lock on five of the Nats’ relief jobs (as long as they stay healthy in spring), that seemingly leaves two slots available in the opening day bullpen. And going through the Nationals’ roster, it could be argued that 12 pitchers now have at least a shot at grabbing one of those two spots.

The 12 that I’m considering part of that group are: left-handers Xavier Cedeno, Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and Sammy Solis, and right-handers Christian Garcia, Ryan Mattheus, Ross Ohlenforf, Tanner Roark, Luis Ayala, Manny Delcarmen, Clay Hensley and Josh Roenicke.

Could we see someone not in that group sneak into the Nats’ opening day bullpen with a strong spring? It’s possible. But to me, those seem to be the legitimate candidates. And having 12 of them for two jobs leaves the Nationals with some tough decisions to make.

It would appear likely that the Nats will give one of those two jobs to a true long reliever, like Roark, Ohlendorf or Detwiler, should the left-hander not win the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Solis is an option, but I expect him to open the season in the minors, where the Nats can stretch out his arm and give him a bit more game experience before calling on him.

If that’s the case, and the Nats end up going with a long reliever, that leaves one bullpen spot available. One lefty reliever is currently on board in Blevins, but manager Matt Williams has said that in an ideal world, he would like two southpaws in his bullpen.

In Cedeno, the Nats have a guy who put up strong numbers against left-handed hitters last year (lefties hit .231/.320/.308 off him) but has really struggled in his career against righties. In Gonzalez, the Nats have a guy who isn’t as effective as Cedeno against left-handed hitters, but over the course of his career has been solid against righties.

If the Nats end up going with two southpaws in their bullpen, would Williams rather have a lefty specialist, a guy who is more of a one- or two-out reliever brought in just to face a tough left-handed hitter, or someone who can get three or four outs when the Nats need him to?

“A little of both,” Williams said. “You look at it and say, ‘Do we want two lefties? Do we need two lefties?’ What does the first lefty offer you? Does he have the ability to get right-handers out, as well? Is he a longer guy that’s resilient that you throw him an inning-plus or you work him in to two innings in a game, how does he bounce back? So all those questions come into play.

“Ideally, I don’t know a manager that wouldn’t want a couple of lefties, one specialist, one longer guy. Sometimes, the roster configuration doesn’t allow that to happen. But ideally, yeah, you want a lefty specialist that’s really nasty on lefties, especially looking at our division. There’s a lot of those guys. A lot of those big, hairy lefties in our division who have the ability to hurt ya. So it’d be nice to have that specialist down there that we could call on to come get that guy. Again, we’ll figure that out as we go.”

When looking at Blevins’ 2013 campaign with the A’s, he worked more than an inning in 14 of his 67 appearances and went at least two innings five times. He’s not a left-handed long reliever by any means, but he’s shown the ability to get four outs or work a couple of innings when that’s needed.

Given that that’s the case, does that potentially open the door for a lefty specialist like Cedeno to win a bullpen spot? Possibly. The Nats also have Clippard as an option when a tough left-handed hitter comes to the plate in a bit spot, as Clippard has dominated lefties in recent seasons, but Williams said yesterday he doesn’t see himself using Clippard in that type of role.

“I would like to put Clip where he thrives, and that’s the eighth inning,” Williams said.

Of course, any of the right-handers I listed above could factor into the equation, as well, specifically if they have a strong spring. Stats during spring training only mean so much, but if Ayala dominates in Grapefruit League action, pounding that sinker down in the zone and showing he’s still effective, he could certainly end up heading north with the Nats. If Garcia is healthy and back to his 2012 form, he could break camp with the team.

Another important factor to consider here is team control. Just because one guy might be the best choice to make the opening day bullpen because of results or because he’s the best short-term fit, it doesn’t mean he’d be the smartest choice looking at the big picture. The Nats have to consider whether these pitchers have options remaining, as well as the opt-out clauses some of the non-roster invitees have written into their contracts (a date that they can choose to become a free agent if they aren’t added to the roster).

A lot of information has to be brought into the equation on this, and it will make for a complicated, tough decision for Williams, his coaching staff and general manager Mike Rizzo.

“It’s an important decision, too,” Williams said. “What does that take? I think it’s up in the air at this point, depending on health, depending on how we want to configure it, the two-lefty situation or the Mattheus (health) situation. That’s kind of a moving target. But it’s an important one. It’s really important for us to do that, because if we have a strong bullpen, then we have a chance every day.”

Here’s today’s quote of the day, written atop the morning schedule sheet: “The only easy day was yesterday.”

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