VIERA, Fla. - Though the Nationals bullpen underwent a near-complete makeover this winter, there really aren’t many spots up for grabs this spring.
Jonathan Papelbon, Shawn Kelley, Oliver Perez and Yusmiero Petit all have guaranteed contracts and track records to suggest each is a lock to make the club. And Felipe Rivero and recently acquired Trevor Gott both are coming off promising rookie seasons that leave each young reliever in a strong position to head north.
Which leaves, in all likelihood, one remaining job. Perhaps two, if Gott is deemed not quite ready or gets squeezed out via the options game.
So the signings of two experienced, qualified relievers just before camp opened this week made for some interesting fodder. Matt Belisle and Burke Badenhop each has enjoyed consistent success at the major league level, yet each agreed to minor league deals with only invitations to big league camp.
Under normal circumstances, both would be near locks to make the team. With the Nationals, that’s not so much the case.
“They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have a real shot,” manager Dusty Baker said. “We didn’t just sign them for insurance. Those guys have big league time.”
Indeed, they do. Belisle has 12 years of major league experience and from 2010-14 appeared in more games than any reliever in baseball besides Tyler Clippard. Badenhop, meanwhile, has made at least 50 appearances each of the last six seasons, posting a combined 3.46 ERA over that span.
So how surprised were the two right-handers to have to settle for minor league contracts in mid-February?
“A little bit,” the 33-year-old Badenhop admitted. “I’m a little bit more of a pessimist sometimes. So I’ll prepare myself more for the worst than hoping for the best. Especially the year before, coming off a great year in Boston, and it was still tough to find something that was commensurate with what I thought my ability was. It was an interesting turn the market took. You’re kind of seeing teams shift younger. It is what it is. At the end of the day, you can only take what’s out there.”
Belisle was a bit less surprised, given the fact he missed time last season with the Cardinals due to elbow inflammation. He wound up deciding to have surgery in October to remove bone chips, though he has long since made a full recovery from that procedure.
“Especially with the surgery that I had, I knew I was in a realm that I didn’t have any experience with,” the 35-year-old said. “So I wasn’t expecting much. I just wanted to really focus on my preparation to get healthy and see what unfolded. It was late when it happened, but here I am.”
Both Badenhop and Belisle were given assurances they’ve got legitimate opportunities to make the team. But at this point, with everybody healthy, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which both make the 25-man roster.
“Hopefully they take the best guys,” Badenhop said, “regardless of what your contract situation is.”
“I came here to make this club and go to D.C.,” Belisle said. “I didn’t come here for anything but to get ready for a big league season. And I want that to be with the Nationals.”