All of the focus of the Nationals off-season and what is left to do has been on Adam LaRoche, and while signing him or not signing him will have the biggest impact on the team moving forward the Nationals do have another need. In 2012 the Washington Nationals bullpen ranked fourteenth in baseball with 3.3 fWAR. There is some question as to how effective a stat like WAR is in measuring relievers as it heavily weights innings pitched. By all measures the Nationals had better relievers than the Rockies, but because the Rockies relievers pitched so many more innings than the rest of baseball they finished second in fWAR.
By the rate state of ERA the Nationals had the seventh best bullpen in the majors and by FIP the twelfth. Moving forward into 2013 there are questions about the Nationals bullpen. Gone from last year’s squad are Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny, and Mike Gonzalez. While Gorzelanny or Gonzalez could be brought back to join Zach Duke as the lefties in the pen, that is unlikely. The Nationals have been tied heavily to JP Howell but until a deal happens nothing can be assumed. As it stands right now the Nationals bullpen lines up with Storen, Clippard, Stammen, Duke, Mattheus, Bray, and Henry Rodriguez.
There are some question marks and concerns among those list of names. Is Stammen ready for the seventh inning role? Will the 252 innings Clippard has pitched over the last three seasons finally catch up to him? Is Storen fully healthy (mentally and physically)? Can Mattheus repeat his 2012 season? Can Zach Duke be an effective long-man? And Henry Rodriguez? Relief pitching is the most volatile position in all sports so even a bullpen without this many questions could struggle and ones with even more could have amazing seasons. It is almost a coin-flip as to what a team will get out of a bullpen, and that is why some GMs, like Mike Rizzo, are reluctant to spend big money on relief pitching.
Aside from the big fish of Rafael Soriano, who declined his $15 million option to return to the Yankees and then declined the $13.3 million qualifying offer, there are some intriguing names out there. Before counting Soriano out let’s think about it for a second. His market is as clear as the Michael Bourn market and they both happen to be Boras clients. It is known that when Boras clients reach the lack of market that Soriano has seemingly reached Boras has been willing to allow them to sign on one year deals. If the Nationals sign Soriano it will cost them a draft pick and he wants to pitch somewhere he can close. The Nationals would be best to leave Storen in the ninth, but if Soriano gets desperate do not count the Nationals out as the ultimate fallback option, especially given Mike Rizzo’s history with Scott Boras.
For now we will focus on cheaper options assuming that the Nats do not want to give up a draft pick and are still saving $12.5 million a year for LaRoche. The two biggest remaining names on the market are Brett Myers and Brian Wilson. Both players have issues as Brett Myers has domestic violence charges in his past and Brian Wilson’s colorful persona could be a distraction to a Nationals bullpen that has always been a tight unit. Henry Rodriguez won’t inspire the most confidence among Nats fans, but aside from Rafael Soriano there aren’t any relievers on the market that could be signed and slide immediately into the Nationals bullpen.
There are however a collection of players that at one time or another had successful careers but have fallen off lately. Players like Jose Valverde, Matt Capps, Kyle Farnsworth, and K-Rod could all be had at deals similar to what Brad Lidge received last off-season, and just because one low risk signing didn’t work out doesn’t mean the Nationals should shy away from a similar type of signing this time around. It would make sense for the Nationals to not only try and add a lefty like JP Howell or Mike Gonzalez to the bullpen, but to also bring in Spring Training competition for Henry Rodriguez and Ryan Mattheus. Fitting that bill would be low cost veterans that can possibly be had on minor league deals and serve as depth if they do not make the 25 man roster out of spring.
More than anything the Nats bullpen needs depth. As with Storen’s injury in Spring Training last season the unexpected can happen quickly and relief pitching is volatile. The Nationals need to not just have a back-up plan for the bullpen, but a back-up plan for the back-up plan. Scooping up as many of the leftover relievers on the market is a low cost way to build both depth and to find a couple of hidden gems or bounce back candidates. Improving the bullpen isn’t the Nats first priority with what remains of the off-season, but it is the only other need.