A happy Monday morning to you in NatsTown - things are well here this morning, after the Packers' 21-16 win over the Eagles in the first round of the NFC playoffs. To see the Packers exorcise two of their biggest playoff demons - Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles - in one day was pretty unexpected from my point of view, and with both the Saints and Eagles out, I think the Packers match up, personnel-wise, with everybody left in the NFC. They've got to win two on the road to get to Dallas, but they've got a shot.
Anyway, you're here for baseball talk, and in the absence of much hard news this morning, I wanted to take a look at a guy who I think might be one of the more intriguing Nationals figures heading into the 2011 season: Collin Balester.
During the 2008 season, my first on the beat and the last one before Stephen Strasburg entered all of our lives, Balester, not Jordan Zimmermann, was seen as the best pitching prospect in the team's system. He had a sharp curveball to go with his mid-90s fastball, and his first start - a one-run outing against the Marlins in Miami on July 1 - looked like the arrival of a possible fixture for the Nationals' rotation. But Balester was never able to command his pitches well enough, or get through a lineup effectively a third time, and he was shifted to the bullpen early last season.
And after a disastrous beginning to his relief tenure in the majors last year - during which Balester drilled two batters in the head - he started to look like he can be a force in the team's bullpen. He was recalled on Aug. 24, and went 11 appearances without allowing a run, before giving up two in the season finale against the Mets. During that 12-game stretch, he struck out 18 batters in 14 1/3 innings, holding batters to a .454 OPS. He was still walking too man batters - 4.7 per nine innings - but in shorter stints where his fastball could be more effective, Balester looked like he might have found a home. He only threw 21 innings last year, but his 12 strikeouts per nine innings would have been the second-best on the team, behind only Strasburg.
Balester will get a shot to be a key member of the bullpen this year, but in what context? I think the Nationals want him to be another version of Tyler Clippard (also a failed starter who turned into a high-strikeout reliever), and if they can get him pitching in the seventh inning along with Clippard, Sean Burnett, Henry Rodriguez or Drew Storen, they'll have an impressive collection of power arms in the back of the bullpen.
But the Nationals are interested in signing another veteran reliever, and if that happens, they'll likely have five relievers (Storen, Burnett, Rodriguez, Clippard and the free agent signing) who can pitch at the end of a game. Doug Slaten will also be around as a lefty specialist, and it's likely the Nationals will cap their bullpen at seven relievers. If that scenario plays out, does Balester become a long reliever, or does he give way to someone like Craig Stammen, who'd be better-suited for that role?
I don't think Balester is particularly well-suited to be a mop-up guy, and his stuff projects better late in the game. But if the Nationals do get another reliever, he might find himself battling Rodriguez and Elvin Ramirez for a roster spot. There are some members of the Nationals' organization who would prefer the team to go into the season without signing another reliever, instead preserving option years for their young relievers and developing them into tradeable assets in the majors. However, we've seen veteran bullpen arms become nice trade chips, like Matt Capps, and the Nationals would like to have an insurance policy for Storen.
And even if the Nationals don't get another reliever, Balester is going to have plenty of competition for a bullpen spot this year in Ramirez, Cole Kimball and Adam Carr. He'd have a leg up on all three of those pitchers, but he does have an option left, which could come into play if the Nationals want to keep Ramirez (a Rule 5 pick). Balester has struggled early in the spring before, and will need to be sharp early this year.
If he is, he might be able to build on last year and finally find a niche for himself in the majors.
What's your take on Balester? Most of you who have followed the team for some time know his name, and have watched him over the last few years. What do you expect from him, and where would you like to see him? Let me know.