Grading the 2010 Nationals: The bullpen

Well, we’ve completed 162 games, and for the Nationals, the 2010 season is over. They finished 69-93, 10 games better than last year but three games short of their Pythagorean win expectation, which said they should have won 72 based on the fact they were outscored by only 87 runs all season. They were also well short of where manager Jim Riggleman expected they would be; he said on Sunday this team should have won 75 games.

And when you look across the roster, you certainly see parts that could have summed up to a better whole. The Nationals got fine seasons from Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn, a nice rookie year from Ian Desmond, improvement from Roger Bernadina and Michael Morse and comebacks both solid (Ivan Rodriguez) and stirring (Livan Hernandez) from two veterans.

So where does that leave the 2010 Nationals? We’ll attempt to answer that question over the next few days. I’ll be issuing grades to the key players on the 2010 team, as well as the coaching staff and front office, and we’ll look at some of the key issues and moments from this season. And as always, we’d love to hear from you.

Stick around during the offseason - we’ll have plenty going on around here, from blog posts and breaking news to information about offseason get-togethers. Aside from a couple weeks of vacation, I’m shooting to have something new every day of the offseason. It should be fun, and before you know it, it will be time to pack for Viera.

We’ll start our 2010 grades with the best segment of the 2010 Nationals: their bullpen.

Collin Balester
Grade: B+ After a number of unsuccessful tries to make the one-time prospect a starter, the Nationals might have something with Balester as a reliever. His time in the majors out of the bullpen started disastrously; Balester hit both Milwaukee’s Rickie Weeks and Arizona’s Mark Reynolds in the head within a two-week span. But Balester was sharp in September, pitching 10 shutout appearances before allowing two runs in a loss to the Mets on Saturday. He’s able to reach back for a little more on his fastball as a reliever, and was throwing it an average of 94.1 mph this year, up from 91.5 mph the last two years as starters. With his fastball-curveball combo, the Nationals might have a solid reliever on their hands. Expect Balester to be in the mix for the 2011 bullpen.

Miguel Batista
Grade: B The Nationals signed Batista to be a swingman in their bullpen, and you couldn’t ask for much more than what the 39-year-old gave them. He took the ball 58 times, pitching 82 2/3 innings and doing everything from finishing games (he completed 18 of them, earning his second save yesterday) to starting them (his memorable turn as Miss Iowa, throwing five shutout innings while filling in for Stephen Strasburg on July 27). Batista stranded a career-high 77.2 percent of runners, though some good luck (a .258 BABIP) helped his low ERA and he served up a few too many homers (one every nine innings). But the Nationals asked for a reliever with a rubber arm, and they got it.

Brian Bruney
Grade: F It’s hard to even remember how much damage Bruney did, since he’s been gone for almost five months. But in the six weeks he was on the roster, Bruney was unquestionably the worst piece of an otherwise strong bullpen. He walked 20 batters in 17 2/3 innings, preventing the Nationals from sweeping the Cubs in Chicago when he walked in the winning run on April 26. He left just 58.1 percent of runners on base, and only occasionally showed the power arm the Nationals thought they were getting (his fastball averaged 92.8 mph, down from 94.6 mph in 2009). Bruney was an abject failure, and one of Mike Rizzo’s only mistakes in an otherwise stellar job of transforming the Nationals’ bullpen.

Sean Burnett
Grade: A There’s no other way to say it: Burnett was the Nationals’ best reliever this year, and might have been one of their best players overall. He struck out more batters than he ever had (8.86 per nine innings), walked less (2.86 per nine), stranded more runners (81.4 percent left on base) and pitched in more situations than ever, becoming a setup man and occasional closer after Matt Capps was traded. His 2.73 Fielding Independent Pitching mark was the best among Nationals relievers, and he ended the year with a 2.14 ERA. Ever since Ivan Rodriguez got him throwing a slider to righties, Burnett took off. His fastball isn’t lively enough to be an ideal closer, but Burnett made himself one of the team’s most indispensable relievers this year.

Matt Capps:
Grade: A- Signed for $3.5 million in the offseason, Capps became one of the team’s success stories, posting 26 saves in four months and making his first All-Star team. Then, Capps helped the Nationals again, when they flipped him for catcher Wilson Ramos in a July 29 trade with the Twins. His saves often came in the Chad Cordero style, where the Nationals would win by a run whether they started the ninth inning up by one run or three, but aside from a rough stretch in early June when Capps was battling his slider, he was exactly what the Nationals needed early this year. He was also a class act off the field, mentoring the team’s younger relievers, making himself active in the community and always standing in front of his locker if he blew a save, ready to talk to reporters.

Tyler Clippard:
Grade: B+ Clippard’s year was a lot like his delivery; jerky, unorthodox, but ultimately effective. He began the season as one of the game’s most effective setup men, seizing the role when Brian Bruney faltered and getting an extraordinary number of swings and misses (13.7 percent of strikes) with his deceptive fastball (valued at 14 runs above average) and his solid changeup. Clippard’s numbers aren’t as good as they appear on first blush; he stranded 8 percent less runners than in 2009, and had well-documented troubles when he entered a game with runners on base as opposed to when he started an inning (his strikeout-to-walk ratio was almost twice as good with runners on). But Clippard survived a strenuous workload (91 innings) to surge at the end of the year, and was a vital piece of the team’s bullpen.

Joel Peralta
Grade: A- Called up after an impressive start as the closer at Triple-A Syracuse, Peralta continued to perform for the Nationals and became the final piece to solidfying the bullpen. His basic and advanced stats (a 2.02 ERA and a 3.02 FIP) were both tremendous, and Peralta struck out nine batters per nine innings with a good fastball-splitter-curveball repertoire. The Nationals weren’t asking Peralta to pitch in many high-leverage situations - much of his work came in the sixth and seventh innings - but the 34-year-old became a key piece of the group.

Doug Slaten
Grade: B+ The Nationals brought Slaten in as a lefty specialist, and he performed that role admirably, holding lefties to a .151 average and posting a 3.43 strikeout-to-walk ratio against them. He was nowhere near as good against righties; Slaten’s K-to-BB ratio was an even 1.0, and righties had an .844 OPS against him. But as a lefty specialist, he was mostly sharp.

Drew Storen
Grade: B It was a solid rookie season for the Nationals’ second first-rounder of 2009; he became a valuable piece of the team’s bullpen and looked comfortable in late-inning situations at times, even though the team doesn’t know quite yet if Storen can be a consistent closer. But Storen limited homers to five percent of his fly balls, and flashed a hard slider that looks like it can be a good out pitch for him. What Storen still needs to work on is fastball command; he has a heavy fastball that sits in the mid-90s, but the save he blew against the Phillies on Sept. 18 illustrated some of the problems he has spotting it at times. Still, Storen looks like a legit major leaguer, and with the way the Nationals’ bullpen is currently constituted, he has time to grow into the closer’s role. He’s only 23, and the future is bright for him.

Tyler Walker
Grade: C+ Walker, who struggled all spring, righted himself during the regular season and became an effective middle reliever at times. He didn’t pitch after June 19, though, and had major shoulder surgery to end his season. Walker will be 35 in May, and it’s unlikely he’ll be back with the Nationals. He gave up too many homers (1.27 per nine innings), but his last 10 outings with the Nationals yielded just three earned runs.

Whether you agree or disagree with the grades, as always, let me know what you think.