The Nats, Bullpen Depth, and the Nature of Relief Pitching
When Mike Rizzo took over the Nats in 2009 Jim Bowden had left the bullpen in disorder. Mike Rizzo immediately traded for Brian Bruney, signed Joe Biemel, and cut Steven Shell. When those moves didn't work out and Joel Hanrahan struggled Rizzo traded him for Sean Burnett and called up Tyler Clippard as a reliever. Rizzo also selected Drew Storen with the 10th overall pick of the draft that season and those three relievers helped to turn the Nationals bullpen from one of the worst in 2009 to one of the best in 2010-2012.
Mike Rizzo's first order of business as the Nats GM was to rebuild a bullpen that was in disarray and as weakened as the Nats bullpen appears by the losses of Burnett, Gonzalez, and Gorzelanny it is nowhere close to the shape that 2009 bullpen was in. Between Storen, Clippard, and Stammen the Nats have three back of the bullpen arms that can shorten a game, and with their starting staff three innings a night might be all they need from the bullpen. Depth is important though, but the Nats may not have to go outside of the organization to find it.
The Nats ongoing search for a lefty has fizzled as the name JP Howell hasn't been heard in weeks. And as was pointed out here a couple days ago a LOOGY would be a luxury due to the splits of their right handed relievers. Erik Davis is the Nats top relief pitching prospect and happens to be right handed as well. In 48 appearances between AA and AAA in 2012 Davis put up a 2.71 ERA with a 9.1 K/9 and 3.70 K/BB. As soon as the season ended the Nats added Davis to the 40 man roster in order to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. The Nats see something in Davis and he will get a chance in Spring Training to show what he has against major league batters.
In 2011 Cole Kimball got called up to the majors and was impressive. In 12 games he pitched to a 1.93 ERA and struck out 18.6% of the batters he faced. His season was unfortunately cut short by a shoulder injury that also kept him out for most of 2012. Kimball returned for only 5.2 total innings spread out between four levels. With so few innings and coming off of injury his 6.35 ERA means little, but he showed enough in 2011 and in the rest of his minor league career that the big right hander will get a shot to win a spot in the Nats bullpen out of Spring Training.
The Nats may have protected Erik Davis from being selected in the Rule 5 draft but as it approached Nats beat reporters warned fans about the possible loss of Rob Wort. Wort has never pitched above high A, but last season he had a 15.1 K/9 at that level and a career 11.4 K/9. With the fact that Wort has never pitched above high A it is unlikely that he will get a shot in Spring Training, but with the nature of relief pitching if he is impressive in any appearances he gets in Spring he could rise fast through the system and be ready for a call-up early in the 2013 season.
As exciting as all these young names are the first two pitchers that will be given a shot to earn the final spots in the Nats bullpen are Bill Bray and Henry Rodriguez. Bray made his debut with the Nationals in 2006 and was impressive before being traded to the Reds as part of a package for Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns. Bray for his career has held lefties to a .643 OPS and if the Nats are looking for a replacement for Mike Gonzalez, Bray could be it. Keep in mind that the Nats signed Gonzalez to a minor league deal much as they did with Bray.
Henry Rodriguez is an interesting story. When he is on there isn't a better reliever in baseball. To go with the 100 MPH fastball he has a sharp biting curve and a 91 MPH change-up. The problem is Henry Rodriguez has yet to put it all together, and when he is off it isn't pretty. 7% of the plate appearances against Henry Rodriguez in 2012 featured a wild pitch. The other big issue with Rodriguez is that he lied about being injured. He not only hurt the team trying to pitch through the injury, but by lying about it and not being healthy in time for the NLDS. Imagine a healthy H-Rod pitching against the Cardinals in the seventh inning instead of Edwin Jackson. Henry will get a chance in Spring Training to prove he deserves another shot, but if someone like Davis, Kimball, or Wort out pitches him Rizzo won't hesitate to release him.
Relief pitching is an interesting thing. The nature of the position is volatility. A reliever can be great one year and look like trash the very next. Take the career of former National Saul Rivera as an example. In 2006-2008 Rivera was one of the better middle relievers in baseball. His highest ERA was 3.96 in 2008 and he didn't give up homeruns with a high HR/9 of 0.6 in 2006. All of a sudden in 2009 Rivera was awful. He finished the season with a 6.10 ERA and a 1.6 HR/9. His K/9 also dropped from 7.0 in 2008 to 4.9 in 2009. Rivera pitched four games for Arizona in 2010 and has never pitched again in the majors.
That is what relief pitching is. It is a quick and brutal business. Saul Rivera may have either just lost it, been battling injury, or his luck catching up to him. Relief pitching is a small sample size. It is rare that a middle reliever pitches more than 70 innings or the equivalent of a month and a half worth of starts. How many starters have a good month or good half a season only to fall apart? If Ubaldo Jimenez were a reliever he would still be in 2010.
The point of all this is that between Bill Bray, Henry Rodriguez, Christian Garcia, Erik Davis, Cole Kimball, Jeff Mandel, Pat Lehman, Rob Wort, and several other minor leaguers the Nats have the ability to ride the hot hand. The back of the bullpen is figured out, they have a long reliever in Zach Duke, Ryan Mattheus proved in 2012 that he can fill in for the seventh or eighth inning if needed, and Tyler Clippard can close. What the Nats are looking for are the last two spots in the bullpen reserved normally for mop up men. Between the collection of talent the Nats have they should be able to find at least that if not something more promising.