MIAMI - Reliever Henry Rodriguez, who started the season on the disabled list after struggling with his mechanics this spring, begins a rehab assignment tonight at Double-A Harrisburg. He's slated to throw two innings in the Senators' season opener tonight, and general manager Mike Rizzo said the Nationals will figure out the timetable for the right-hander's return after they see where he's at.
In no more than a month, though, the Nationals will have to make a decision on Rodriguez. His rehab assignment can last a maximum of 30 days, and he has no minor league options remaining. So by early May at the latest, the Nationals will have to bring him to the majors or put him on waivers. And considering he throws 100 mph and was the centerpiece of the Josh Willingham trade last December, the Nationals aren't likely to risk losing him.
They'll have to make a decision on him eventually, though, and when they do, it will likely disrupt a bullpen that looks misshapen at the moment. Manager Jim Riggleman said today he's trying to keep right-hander Brian Broderick out of pressure situations to get the Rule 5 pick used to the big leagues. But while Riggleman said Chad Gaudin can pitch early or late, he's their only reliever stretched out far enough to throw three innings, and Doug Slaten is primarily a lefty specialist.
That leaves four relievers who can pitch in most situations: Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, Todd Coffey and Drew Storen. And the Nationals would like to use Burnett, Clippard and Storen when they're winning. They don't have someone like Joel Peralta, who did everything from sixth-inning mop-up work to eighth-inning pressure duty last year, and effectively, Coffey is the only person in their bullpen who could fill that role at the moment. If Gaudin did it, Broderick would have to become the long reliever.
The main problem, of course, is that aside from Burnett, Clippard and Storen, the Nationals' bullpen has a 15.67 ERA.
"When their slots come up, that's what you do: you put them in there," Riggleman said. "They've got good arms. It's not like they're not a challenge for hitters. They've got good arms, they've got good stuff. We're in one of those ruts where if it could go wrong, it's gone wrong."
Rodriguez, so far, has only been throwing in simulated games at the Nationals' accelerated minor league camp in Viera. He'll have to prove to the team he can throw strikes consistently, and his timetable to return will likely be in weeks, not days.
But he's probably coming, which means the Nationals will have to make a decision.
"When you bring somebody on, that means somebody's got to go," Riggleman said. "You've got to be real careful about when you make that decision. I'm not anticipating anything too quickly, but I don't think it'll take (Rodriguez) long to get ready, physically. Whether or not he's having success will have something to say about it, too."