Nats bullpen could go in many directions

If there’s one element of the team that’s worked well for the Nationals consistently throughout the season, it’s been the bullpen. Early in the season, the Nationals had two relievers that were effective in late-inning situations (Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps), and they’d usually win those games as long as they could avoid a reliever (often Brian Bruney) torching a lead on the way there. But since the Nationals replaced Bruney with Drew Storen, they’ve had a relief corps that looks polished all the way around.

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In Fielding Independent Pitching, a stat that measures everything a pitcher does that’s not affected by a fielder (walks, strikeouts, home runs, etc.), the Nationals’ best reliever is actually left-hander Sean Burnett, who is 16th in the NL with a 2.82 FIP. Storen is 23rd with a 3.01 FIP, and Clippard is 31st at 3.19. Closer Matt Capps, the Nationals’ lone All-Star, is 42nd with a 3.60 FIP.

Capps, though, is the one with whom this blog post has the most to do. He’s arbitration-eligible after the season, and if he adds another 15 or so saves to his total in the second half, he’ll finish the year with 38 at a $3.5 million salary for 2010. He’d be due for a significant raise in arbitration after the year. With so many other capable relievers in waiting, and the baseball axiom in play about how mediocre teams shouldn’t pay big money for a closer, there’s an argument to be made for trading Capps this month.

If they did, the Nationals could still go into next season with an affordable core of Clippard and Storen, along with Burnett, who would probably be due something north of $1 million in arbitration. It’s a sturdy, cheap back end of the bullpen, and in that scenario, Storen would likely get the first crack at closing. And the Nationals might be able to get a couple prospects back for Capps, with so many teams still in the playoff race and unwilling to deal closers.

But general manager Mike Rizzo has hinted he’s not all that interested in dealing Capps; the day the 26-year-old was named to his first All-Star team, Rizzo said, “He was good for us in 2010, and we believe, beyond. So that was why I thought it was an important signing then, and I think he’s an important part of the ballclub now.”

It was said in July, so it trips all the alarms set to go off when a GM is posturing. Internally, though, the Nationals don’t believe they’re far from contending in 2011, and a bullpen like the one they have now could help bring that about sooner. There’s something to be said for a closer who knows how to succeed in the ninth inning, and Capps’ peripheral stats wouldn’t even suggest he’s having a career year.

He’s got a 1.402 WHIP, well off his numbers from 2006-08 in Pittsburgh, when Capps was around or even below 1.0. Hitters are batting .338 on balls put in play, which is also far higher than his numbers in Pittsburgh. This season, other than the high number of saves, falls right in Capps’ statistical wheelhouse.

So the decision of whether to trade Capps or keep him, among others the Nationals will have to make this month, is one of the more interesting ones. It’ll probably reveal something about how close they feel they are to competing in 2011, and whether or not it’s worth giving Capps a raise to get there.