First, the news: The Nationals cut five pitchers from camp today. They optioned Collin Balester and Atahualpa Severino to Triple-A Syracuse, optioned Ryan Mattheus and Aaron Thompson to Double-A Syracuse, optioned Juan Jaime to Single-A Potomac and released Ron Villone. They have 45 players remaining in their big-league camp.
My reaction: It's becoming increasingly clear what the Nationals' bullpen is going to look like on Opening Day. We know this much: Matt Capps, Brian Bruney, Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett are virtual locks to make the team. Jason Bergmann's chances look increasingly strong, as well. Manager Jim Riggleman said there's a good chance the Nationals won't keep a second lefty in the bullpen, though Jesse English and Doug Slaten are still competing for spots. It's more likely Clippard will be use in lieu of a situational lefty. Starters like Craig Stammen, J.D. Martin and Miguel Batista could all move to the bullpen. And rookie Drew Storen is "making a case for himself," Riggleman said. That case could get even stronger if Tyler Walker has another shaky outing tonight against the Braves.
The Nationals would prefer to have Storen open in the minors, but Storen has impressed in camp with his four-pitch arsenal and his willingness to attack hitters. And with every reliever cut out of camp, it becomes more likely Storen will get a shot.
Villone, Riggleman said, was a tough decision; the manager has made no secret of his admiration for the 39-year-old, and it seemed like Villone had a chance to be the team's lefty specialist. But he allowed three runs in 1 2/3 innings and made a throwing error on Sunday that led to two more runs. Rizzo called Villone "one of my favorite guys," but said Slaten and English are in the mix because they've been impressive and still have options left.
All that created a combination of factors that made Villone expendable.
"He's such a class act - just a wonderful guy and a very effective pitcher for us last year," Riggleman said. "I know Ron feels, and I also feel, he's going to pitch in the big leagues this year."
And Balester, whose status as one of the team's top prospects dates back to its days in Montreal, is once again left on the outside of the Nationals' rotation plans. He had an 8.31 ERA in two games, walking four batters in 4 1/3 innings.
"We don't foresee him right now as one of our five starters, and we want him to start," Riggleman said. "We're going to send him over to minor-league camp, get him in that rotation with Syracuse and get it going. ... He's got a good arm, he's had some good innings in Washington. We need to see him stretch those innings into a game."
Thompson had been impressive in four shutout innings this spring, but Riggleman said like with Balester, the Nationals needed him to get more innings before the season. The left-hander, acquired in a trade with the Marlins for Nick Johnson last July, could be one of the first call-ups this spring, Riggleman said.
"It's not performance-related," Riggleman said of the Thompson cut. "If he pitches good, and we need a guy, he's high on the list."