Little clarity in competition for long relief job

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Dusty Baker prefers to have a true long man in his bullpen. The Nationals manager has said so multiple times this spring.

"You need that guy," Baker said this morning. "Unless you just have a five-man rotation that's unbelievable, but those are hard to find. We've got a good one, but a lot of teams are going to need that guy."

The Nationals have no shortage of long relief candidates in camp this spring, from veterans like Vance Worley, Jeremy Guthrie, Matt Albers and Jacob Turner to younger pitchers like A.J. Cole.

The question the organization's decision-makers are going to have to confront - and probably within the next week - is whether the need to keep one of those imperfect arms for an admittedly underappreciated role outweighs the desire to keep a more electric reliever who can only be used in short bursts.

It would help matters if someone from the group of long relief candidates would start separating himself from the rest of the pack. There was an opportunity today for Worley to do just that, but the right-hander instead put forth an erratic outing that didn't do much to clear things up.

Vance-Worley-throws-white-spring-sidebar.jpgWorley allowed four runs (three earned) in the top of the second, and put nine total Yankees on base during his 3 1/3-inning start. That raised his spring ERA to 5.84, hardly a ringing endorsement for a precious spot on the opening day roster.

"There's been some good innings, and then there's been some innings that could use some work," Worley said. "But it's spring training and nobody's going to be perfect. Hopefully they see the good innings and that outweighs the innings where I give up runs. For the most part, everything velocity-wise and movement-wise, the pitches are doing what I want. It's just a matter of time."

There's not much more time, though, for Worley and others to state their final cases. With Max Scherzer rejoining the rotation Wednesday and Tanner Roark returning from the World Baseball Classic later this week, there won't be many (if any) starting slots or long relief outings available for these pitchers to get another extended look.

Guthrie, who got a chance to start a game earlier this month, has been pitching shorter stints lately, including today's two-inning relief appearance. He allowed a two-run homer to Matt Holliday, raising his ERA to 3.48.

"I've done as well as I could hope, for the most part," the 37-year-old right-hander said. "I understand they have a lot of different equations. I don't even know if they need a long guy, or if they use an arm they've already seen in their bullpen and try to stretch them out a couple innings. But I feel like if they were going to go the route of a traditional long man, I would feel very good about what I was able to do here, whether I was selected for the team or not."

Guthrie has a little bit of long relief experience in his career - 33 of his 305 major league appearances have come out of the bullpen - but Worley has had more recent success, posting a 3.53 ERA in 35 games (31 of them out of the bullpen) last season in Baltimore.

The 29-year-old has learned the uncertain and often undefined role of long reliever is not something everyone can handle.

"It's not easy, no," he said. "It took me til last year to figure out how to do it. Pittsburgh (in 2015) was the first team to try to throw me into that role, and I didn't handle it very well. Probably because I wanted to be a starter, and basically they said: 'Hey, you might get some starts, but you're going to sit in the 'pen and when we need you, we need you.'

"Last year, I think the Orioles did a good job of mixing me in, not only for long roles but going in for an out. I set up, I closed, spot start, bridge guy, long guy, mop-up guy. And that made it easier, because I was ready to go every day from the first pitch through."

The Nationals don't necessarily have to keep a true long man. They could elect to go with seven better relievers and hope they can provide the occasional multiple-inning appearance if needed.

It would help, though, if someone from the pack was standing out a little more, providing some clarity to a muddy picture.

"That's an understatement," Baker said. "I'd like clarity a couple weeks ago, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen. It's probably going to go down to the end. You always want somebody to step up. It makes our decisions easier. ... To answer your question, I'd love to have more clarity, but there isn't right now."

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