As price of relievers continues to climb, Nationals are in a good position

The point was made again yesterday, as Joe Nathan - a 37-year-old closer who used to be one of the game’s very best, but hasn’t been at the top since 2009 after Tommy John surgery - got a two-year, $14.5 million deal from the Rangers with a $9 million option for 2014: Closers are really expensive.

Actually, it’s not just closers. Setup men, like the Yankees’ Rafael Soriano and the Tigers’ Joaquin Benoit, raked in hordes of cash last winter. Relievers are more important in baseball than ever, and they’re being paid a princely sum to lock down the ends of games.

So with all that in mind, why in the world would the Nationals think about parting with Drew Storen?

The 24-year-old closer’s name came up frequently in trade talks last July, and it figures teams will ask about him again this year; he saved 42 games in his first full year as the Nationals’ closer, blowing only five while working a hefty 75 1/3 innings. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said at the GM meetings last week that the team wasn’t pursuing big-ticket closers like the Phillies’ Ryan Madson because it already had Storen. Still, it’s possible they could find teams wanting Storen in return for a center fielder this winter. The Twins, for example, wanted Storen in return for Denard Span last year.

On one hand, there’s a logical argument to be made for moving Storen at the height of his value. Most closers aren’t Trevor Hoffman or Mariano Rivera, and the Nationals were burned once before by hanging onto Chad Cordero for too long after drafting him, grooming him to be the closer and giving him a heavy workload at a young age (sound familiar?). And they’ve seen the benefit of moving a reliever at his peak, sending Matt Capps to Minnesota in 2010. Relievers are typically more dispensable than everyday players, so there’s a common school of thought that it’s worthwhile to develop their replacements and move them when a team might overpay for them.

But that logic might be getting turned on its head as the price for relievers continues to climb. Let’s say the Nationals moved Storen at some point. They’d have a number of possibilities to replace him internally, like Tyler Clippard and Henry Rodriguez, but Clippard has turned himself into something even more valuable as a setup man who can work two innings and enter the game with men on base, and Rodriguez might not be consistent enough to pitch the ninth on a daily basis.

If they wanted to get a veteran option to man the ninth inning this winter, they’d be looking at pitchers who will cost them dearly (Heath Bell or Madson) or closers who have been off their game recently (Francisco Rodriguez and Capps). All of those pitchers would likely cost them at least what Nathan got from the Rangers, and all of them are at least four years older than Storen, who won’t hit arbitration until next winter.

The Nationals are talking about being ready to win in 2012, and if that’s the case, Storen and Clippard are going to be a big part of their plans. Both of them are young and controllable, and while they could fall off at any point, they’ve both been remarkably durable so far.

As the cost of replacing their young relievers continues to go up, the Nationals are in a good position. They’ll either get such a ransom that they’d be able to justify parting with one of them, or they’ll go into 2012 with a homegrown bullpen that’s become one of the game’s best. It’s always good to be in possession of a commodity as its value skyrockets, and that’s exactly where the Nationals are now.