The Nationals came into the 2013-14 offseason with a much shorter list of needs than many other teams in baseball. They did not seem to need or want any of the big-ticket free agents on the market, never really becoming players for the likes of Robinson Cano or Masahiro Tanaka. They made acquiring another starting pitcher a top priority, and did so by trading for Doug Fister. They felt the need to improve a bench that last year provided negative value to the team, adding the versatile former Oriole Nate McLoutth. And they prioritized adding depth and quality to a bullpen that disappointed last year, finishing in the bottom half of the major leagues in both ERA and the ever-important strikeouts per nine innings.
And add to the bullpen they did. Over the last three months, the Nationals have made several acquisitions that have created a log-jam of sorts in the relief corps. The key players at the back end, Rafael Soriano and Tyler Clippard, remain in DC. And indeed, the team has barely subtracted any pieces from last year’s ‘pen; of the 9 pitchers to throw more than 20 innings in relief for Washington in 2013, only 2 (lefties Fernando Abad and Ian Krol) are not currently with the team. They decided to retain Ross Ohlendorf, giving the journeyman swingman a one year, major league deal that all but ensures him a place on the 2014 club. They had at least one club interested in both Clippard and Drew Storen, but no deal materialized. Rather than swapping out pieces, the Nationals have simply added on. They traded for veteran Jerry Blevins, a left-hander who is equally effective against lefties and righties, and may compete with Storen for the seventh inning spot. And today, they brought back Luis Ayala, who set up for Chad Cordero in 2005 and has posted a 2.58 ERA over the last 3 seasons, on a minor-league deal. The Nationals now have 10 viable relievers — Soriano, Clippard, Storen, Blevins, Ohlendorf, Craig Stammen, Tanner Roark, Ayala, Ryan Mattheus, and Xavier Cedeno — all with extensive major league experience, competing for just 7 spots. So who makes the cut, come Opening Day?
With his 43 saves last year, and his large contract, Soriano is guaranteed to start the year in the closer’s role. Over the last three seasons, Clippard has been one of the best relievers in baseball, with a 2.60 ERA, 10.1 K/9, and a league-leading 232 innings pitched. GM Mike Rizzo acquired Blevins, against whom right-handers have hit .240/.326/.385 (lefties, by comparison, hit .224/.278/.358), to be a part of the bullpen. Storen, despite his struggles last year, is just two years removed from a season in which he posted 43 saves and a WHIP barely above one. And after failing as a starter, Stammen has emerged as a stalwart member of the Nationals bullpen, posting a 2.79 career ERA in relief.
Those five are pretty much guaranteed their jobs; therefore, it’s not a ten-man battle for seven spots, but a five-man battle for two. Roark is simultaneously involved in both the battle for the job of long reliever and the battle to become the fifth starter. He was absolutely brilliant in his first stint with the big club, with a remarkable 1.51 ERA in 14 appearances (5 starts). But Ohlendorf was also quite good last year (he posted a 3.28 ERA, the lowest of his career), and the Nationals risk losing him if they deny him a spot on the active roster. For this reason, if Roark (who has minor-league options remaining) doesn’t win the fifth starter job, he will likely miss out on the bullpen, with Ohlendorf becoming the long reliever.
For the last spot in the bullpen, the Nats can choose from either Mattheus, Cedeno, or Ayala. Mattheus and Ayala are both right-handed sinkerballers. Mattheus has far better stuff than Ayala, with a fastball that can touch 96 MPH, but last year was a near-complete loss for him, with a 6.37 ERA, an option to the minor leagues, and a stint on the DL after punching a locker and breaking his hand. Ayala has an extensive injury history, and missed much of last year with an anxiety disorder, but pitched well when healthy. And Cedeno is an entirely different type of pitcher altogether — a lefty specialist with a big sweeping curveball who impressed the Nationals’ brass in 6 major league innings last year.
With only one lefty, Blevins, currently in the bullpen, the Nationals may have no choice other than to hand the last spot in the bullpen to Cedeno, against whom lefties have just a .628 career OPS. Of course, left-handed free agent reliever Oliver Perez (who pitched at AAA Syracuse, the Nationals’ affiliate, in 2011) is still available, and the Nationals are said to have interest. If signed, Perez would obviously replace Cedeno as the Nationals’ lefty specialist.
The Nationals have put a great deal of resources into improving an underperforming bullpen, and thus have assembled too many viable candidates to fill the limited spots. It’s a problem, but it’s a good problem to have.