Spring training preview, Part II: The bullpen

There are many metrics by which to measure how much the Nationals’ bullpen has changed since this time last year, when former GM Jim Bowden entered spring training with a devil-may-care attitude toward the untested group of relievers he’d assembled.

But the most telling one might be this: Four relievers in Washington’s 2010 big-league camp have more career saves than Joel Hanrahan - who went unchallenged for the closer’s role last spring - had to begin the 2009 season.

From nearly the moment he got the acting GM title on March 4, Mike Rizzo began working to stop a bullpen leak he saw coming before everyone else saw it spring open. That happened the third weekend of April last year, when the Florida Marlins swept the Nationals with three ninth-inning comebacks and became the first team in major league history to win three straight games they trailed to start the ninth inning.

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Rizzo threw every veteran reliever he could at the problem, whether it was by free agency or trades, and wound up with a serviceable group by the end of the season. It was, of course, too late to reverse any of the damage done at the beginning of the year, but it at least gave the Nationals a clean surface on which to build. None of the seven relievers on last year’s Opening Day roster are still with the organization.

This year, the number of proven commodities in the Nationals’ bullpen is exponentially higher than it was last year. Whether that leads to better production remains to be seen. But there’s at least a reasonable hope the Nationals can form a solid bullpen from the pieces they’ve added.

Former Pirates closer Matt Capps enters as the prohibitive favorite to get the job in Washington. Manager Jim Riggleman has said he’d go with Capps “if there was a ballgame today,” though he didn’t sound opposed to using former Yankees reliever Brian Bruney in certain situations. Capps was non-tendered by the Pirates after having the worst year of his career -- a 5.80 ERA, a 4-8 record and a 1.656 WHIP in 57 games. But second-level stats show Capps might have been the victim of some bad luck.

His batting average on balls in play (BABIP), for example, was .364 last year. It had never been .290 in any other season of Capps’ career. Ten percent of his plate opportunities ended with extra-base hits, and 11 percent of the fly balls he allowed went for home runs. Some of those things are functions of Capps’ performance, but he still converted 27 of 32 save opportunities. He’s a pitcher with a reputation for attacking hitters, and the Nationals are hoping last year was the season he got burned by doing so, rather than the start of a decline in his performance.

Bruney, acquired in a trade with the Yankees at the Winter Meetings, has a power arm, but tends to struggle with control. He could get a shot to close some games, but is more likely to be a setup man. The Nationals also signed former Giants and Phillies reliever Tyler Walker to a $650,000 deal, and gave veteran Eddie Guardado a minor league deal.

They also bring back Sean Burnett, who should have a larger role than the traditional lefty specialist. Burnett took a line drive off his hand late last season, and Riggleman said he was limiting Burnett’s workload because of the injury. It’s conceivable Burnett winds up as a setup man, or at least shares the job. The Nationals also saw progress from Tyler Clippard, who looks to have found a home in the bullpen and was actually tougher on lefties than righties last year (lefties hit just .122 off him). He could be a seventh-inning option. Jason Bergmann seemed to have found a home in the bullpen last year, but he’s out of options now, and the Nationals need to figure out if he’s going to be part of their long-term plan.

Veteran Doug Slaten could get a look, and there’s a chance a starter like Craig Stammen or Garrett Mock moves to the bullpen. And then there’s Drew Storen, the Nationals’ second first-round pick in 2009 who enjoyed a charmed run through the minor leagues last season. He’s seen as the closer of the future, and will get a chance to make the team out of spring training. The Nationals love Storen’s makeup and his willingness to challenge hitters. Even if he doesn’t make the team, it won’t be long before we see him in Washington.

If last year’s bullpen was a product of Bowden’s handiwork, this year’s group unmistakably bears Rizzo’s imprint. There’s going to be competition at almost every level of the bullpen -- Rizzo’s moves are often made toward that end -- and the Nationals have to hope they’ve got enough critical mass for a reliable closer to emerge somewhere.

If I had to guess right now, I’d say the Opening Day bullpen looks like this: Capps (closer), Bruney (setup), Burnett (lefty specialist-setup hybrid), Clippard, Walker (seventh-inning guys), Bergmann (long relief) and Slaten or Guardado (mop-up). Storen makes the team if he proves he can challenge big-league hittters and handle it; otherwise he’s up by June.

Which brings us to my questions for the day:

1. What does your ideal bullpen look like? Who’s in it, and who’s doing what?

2. Where would you put Storen? He’s got the stuff to be a late-inning reliever, but the Nationals have enough other options not to put him in that situation right away. And they could conceivably send him down to give him a little more work, especially since he’s not on the 40-man roster yet.

3. On a scale of one to 10, how comfortable are you with the options to close games? Do the Nats have enough proven commodities for you, or are you still nervous a repeat of last year is possible?

Fire away in the comments section, and we’ll have more spring training speculative goodness tomorrow.