Tough bullpen decisions looming for Nationals

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - We're just about getting to that point when the Nationals have to start making some tough roster decisions. And none they face over the final two weeks of spring training may be tougher than how to divvy up the last few spots in their bullpen.

Forget the competition for closer. That's an issue itself, but the more complicated competition is for the sixth and seventh jobs in what no matter what looks like a deep relief corps.

Barring some unforeseen development, five spots are probably already locked up. They'll go to right-handers Shawn Kelley, Joe Blanton and Blake Treinen, plus lefties Sammy Solis and Oliver Pérez.

That leaves a whole lot of candidates for the two other spots. And those candidates all bring something different to the table.

There's Joe Nathan, the 42-year-old longtime closer trying to make a comeback on a minor league contract. He tossed a 1-2-3 inning of relief yesterday against the Astros and now has gone eight innings this spring allowing three runs, earning some unsolicited praise from manager Dusty Baker.

There's Koda Glover, the 23-year-old closer-in-the-making who had thrown six scoreless innings of one-hit ball until finally giving up a run in the top of the ninth yesterday.

There are Jeremy Guthrie and Vance Worley, a couple of veterans who could prove valuable as a long man in this bullpen, the ultimate insurance policy for Baker in case one of his starters gets knocked out early on any given night.

There's Enny Romero, the flamethrowing left-hander who only appeared in three games before leaving to pitch for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic who has been turning heads on the international stage.

Gott-Throws-White-Sidebar.jpgAnd then there are other relievers still in big league camp, veterans like Neal Cotts, Matt Albers and Rafael Martin, and youngsters like Trevor Gott and Matt Grace.

So what do the decisions boil down to? Well, beyond the obvious goal of having the proper mix of righties and lefties, not to mention the right mix of one-inning relievers and multi-inning relievers, there's also the goal of having the proper mix of young and old.

Baker believes it's important to have a good balance of veterans and younger pitchers in a big league bullpen.

"If your young guys are good enough to be on the team, yeah, I believe in a balance," he said. "The young guys, they give the older guys energy. And we give them experience and knowledge. ... We have some veterans that can help stabilize some of these guys, or if they're going through a tough time, they can tell them how to get out of it, how to put things in proper perspective. There's nobody out there that hasn't been through some tough times. That's where the veterans really come in."

There's also the options game, always a consideration in these matters. Relievers who still have minor league options (Glover, Treinen, Gott, Grace) sometimes are the unfortunate victims of roster maneuvering come late March, losing out to others who can't be sent down without first being exposed to waivers (Solis, Romero).

All of this comes into play when Baker, pitching coach Mike Maddux, general manager Mike Rizzo and his staff meet in the coming days to finalize their opening day bullpen.

"We've got some tough decisions to make," Baker said. "I've talked to Riz about it. There are some guys I'd rather make up our minds, for their sake, sooner rather than later. It gets tougher toward the end of spring to get a job. They might want you, but everybody has the same roster problem that we have. I think it's only fair to them to see if we can do this sooner rather than later, but sometimes it doesn't work out like that."

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