After news first broke that the Nationals had traded Josh Willingham to the Oakland Athletics yesterday, there were a couple hours where it was unknown who they'd be getting back. During that time, I got a call from another reporter who covers the Nats, and we started talking about possible names. The first one that came up was Henry Rodriguez.
We'd discussed the Nationals' interest in him at the Winter Meetings, and it made all the sense in the world why the Nationals would be interested in him: they wanted a young reliever who had closed in the past, and Rodriguez had done that in spurts in the minors. But beyond that, there's another reason Rodriguez was a perfect fit - he's exactly the kind of reliever Mike Rizzo has been stockpiling for the Nationals all year.
With the addition of Rodriguez, the Nationals' bullpen, for all intents and purposes, should be mostly complete for 2011. They'd have the financial flexibility to add one more higher-priced bullpen piece, but if they don't, they should still have enough depth to field a solid relief unit. They'll have Drew Storen and Rodriguez, along with their two big success stories of 2010 (Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett). Collin Balester should be back, as well, and Doug Slaten returns as a lefty specialist. Finally, Craig Stammen gives them a long reliever who can start in a pinch.
Take a look at those seven pitchers, and with few exceptions, they're young, controllable and cheap. But most importantly, they can strike people out. Storen throws a sinker that tops out around 96 mph. Balester can touch 96, as well, and Clippard's funky delivery helped him fan 112 batters last year. And Rodriguez has been clocked touching triple digits.
Behind that group, there's Adam Carr and Cole Kimball, who both throw in the upper 90s. Rule 5 pick Elvin Ramirez throws in the high 90s, as well, and could get a shot to stick in the Nationals' bullpen. It's very clear Rizzo is trying to assemble as many power arms as possible, and with the current configuration of the team's rotation, he's doing so with good reason.
In sharp contrast to the bullpen, the Nationals' rotation won't scare many lineups. It struck out just 554 batters last year, second-fewest in the majors, and that was with Stephen Strasburg fanning 12.2 per nine innings over his 12 starts. And even with Strasburg, the average fastball from a Nationals starter (88.8 mph) was the slowest in the league. The Nationals won't have him this year, and with the exception of Jordan Zimmermann, they'll have few starters who can miss bats.
The rotation, again, looks like it will be a group of work-quick, pitch-to-contact starters who rely on sinkers to generate ground balls. That's John Lannan's game, and it's Jason Marquis', as well. Livan Hernandez only throws 86 mph, and Yunesky Maya, Ross Detwiler and Chien-Ming Wang all lack big-strikeout potential. If the Nationals are to get through this year, it will have to be with a journeyman group that can consistently hand games over to the bullpen in the sixth inning while they still have a chance to win.
It's by no means the ideal configuration for a rotation, and barring a trade, the Nationals simply won't have their ace this year. But their Plan B all along has been to back an underwhelming rotation with a bullpen full of smoke-throwers that can present a startling contrast to hitters in the game's latter innings. Teams have won with that strategy before - most notably the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won 116 games with Freddy Garcia (163 strikeouts) and four more pitchers that all fell short of 120 Ks. No one's suggesting this Nationals team is anywhere near that good, but there's precedent for this kind of formula working, at least for a short while, if everything breaks right.
And if the Nationals have any chance to be respectable this year, it will have to be with a bullpen that does some of what Washington's rotation can't. That's why Rizzo is snatching up power arms by the bulk, and it's why the Rodriguez trade makes so much sense.