Heading into the 2011 season, the Nationals' bullpen might be the strongest component of the team, but they apparently aren't done upgrading it yet. Team and industry sources said Washington is still in pursuit of another reliever who can pitch in the late innings and close if young arms like Drew Storen or Henry Rodriguez can't get the job done.
The Nationals have a surplus of hard-throwing young pitchers, like Storen, Rodriguez, Tyler Clippard and Collin Balester. But they don't really have anyone who has extensive experience closing games, and if they're smart on the free agent market, they may be able to sign a mid-level free agent and trade him for a prospect in July, like they did with Matt Capps last season.
Washington paid Capps $3.5 million last season, and is apparently shopping in a similar market this year; a source said the team is planning to spend around $3 million on a reliever.
Former Astros and Diamondbacks pitcher Chad Qualls, who made $2.5 million last season, is a name that might make some sense, though he reportedly has six teams interested in him and could get a bigger contract this winter. Former Twins reliever Brian Fuentes is also on the market, though he is looking to close and a league source said he is also likely to be expensive.
The Nationals could also make a play for veterans Kyle Farnsworth, Grant Balfour or Aaron Heilman.
If the Nationals did sign another reliever, though, it would take away a spot from one of the young power arms the team is stockpiling. Washington took Elvin Ramirez in the Rule 5 draft, and also has Cole Kimball and A.J. Carr in the minors. Storen, Rodriguez, Balester, Clippard, Doug Slaten and Sean Burnett all figure to be in the bullpen this year, and the Nationals still need a long reliever for the group, though Balester might be able to pick up some of that work.
Assuming the team would carry seven relievers, the Nationals could only keep one from the Ramirez-Kimball-Carr group, and that's without adding another arm. With so many young relievers that still have options, though, the Nationals have the flexibility to make it work, and as Capps proved last year, there can be a real upside to taking a chance on a reasonably-priced reliever.