Will the Nationals’ bullpen be better? It’s not a guarantee

VIERA, Fla. - You’re likely to hear a lot from Nationals camp this spring about their bullpen being the foundation of the team, how the Nationals have strengthened a strength by adding relievers Todd Coffey and Henry Rodriguez, among others, to a group that had the fifth-best ERA in baseball last year while working the most innings.

Heading into the spring, there’s a high likelihood the Nationals’ relievers will be the best thing about the team again. But the often-overlooked point about the group is the key contributors it lost from last year. Manager Jim Riggleman said as much this morning when talking about the group.

“We had some guys contributing in that bullpen last year who are here (this year),” Riggleman said. “We had a couple guys who are not here - (Joel) Peralta did a good job, (Matt) Capps did a good job, of course. So we needed to add a little bit there to maintain where we were. But I think we’ve gone a little further. If Coffey and Rodriguez can do for us what Peralta did and what (Miguel) Batista did, then we’re at least as strong on paper. We’ll see how that plays out.”

There’s little question the Nationals have more talent in the bullpen than they did last year. If they wanted to, they could stock as many as five mid-to-high 90s fastballs in their group, with a couple more in reserve in the minors. The game is trending toward a large complement of power arms in the bullpen, and the Nationals - who are sorely lacking strikeout artists in their rotation - have surged to the front of the group.

But all that still has to play out as successfully as it did last year, and the Nationals waved goodbye to two relievers who had solid years for them in 2010: Peralta had a 2.02 ERA and a 3.02 Fielding Independent Pitching rating, which was second in the bullpen to Sean Burnett. And though Batista struggled at times, he worked 77 2/3 innings, doing everything from closing two games to throwing five shutout innings in a spot start after Stephen Strasburg was scratched. The Nationals don’t have a sure thing in long relief this year, and there’s no guarantee they’ll have a new reliever who is as successful as Peralta was last year.

They also got career years from Burnett and Tyler Clippard, and Doug Slaten was a nice surprise as a lefty specialist. All those guys are back, but will they be as good?

One key might be Collin Balester, who seems to have found a niche as a reliever after bottoming out as a starter. He struck out 28 batters in 21 innings last year, posting 11 straight scoreless appearances before giving up a pair of runs in the season finale. It’s possible Balester starts in the minors, especially if the Nationals try to keep Rule 5 pick Elvin Ramirez, but the bullpen looks like it could be a better fit for him.

“This is a guy that had great velocity, and the more he started starting, it started going down,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said of Balester. “He’d race, he’d get nervous, and boom - we put him back in the bullpen and now the velocity’s come back up. You see 96, you see the good curveball. He’s thrown a nice changeup. A lot of that just goes with Bally getting comfortable with what he’s doing.”

But Balester, like a number of the Nationals’ other relievers, has to show he can control his fastball and be efficient every night. The Nationals’ relievers walked the ninth-fewest batters per nine innings in baseball last year, and their three relievers with the best BB/9 rate - Peralta, Capps and Tyler Walker - aren’t here. Balester, by comparison, walked 11 batters in 21 innings last year.

It’s just one of the unknowns the Nationals have in a relief unit that, for all of its success last year, underwent a fair amount of change. Could the Nationals actually have bettered their bullpen? It’s possible. But it’s far from a lock.