Are the Nats Set for Opening Day

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Early this week Davey Johnson made the announcement that Henry Rodriguez would be in the Nats bullpen and that Zach Duke would be the only lefty in the Nats bullpen. The reason that Johnson gave was that you don't want to give up on a talent like Henry Rodriguez. Anyone that has seen him pitch on one of his good days can attest to just how talented he is. Henry Rodriguez is second only to Stephen Strasburg when it comes to pure stuff. The issue hasn't been with the 100 MPH fastball, the hard biting quick diving curve, or the drop off the table 91 MPH change-up. The issue with Henry Rodriguez is that no one, including himself, is ever quite certain of where his pitches are going.

In 2011 Henry Rodriguez was inconsistent but his final numbers were good with a 3.56 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 9.59 K/9, and 0.14 HR/9. In 2012 the number that really changed was the HR/9 as it rose from 0.14 in 2011 to 1.23 in 2012. Overall for his career Henry Rodriguez has a 0.50 HR/9 so 2011 was a bit low and 2012 a bit high. If Henry Rodriguez can get that under control then he is a useful reliever even without lowering his walk totals, but his career 5.83 BB/9 is bad. It is very bad. As are his 34 career wild pitches in 126 games. If Henry Rodriguez can ever harness his stuff he will be one of the best relievers in baseball, and if he can be healthy and back to 2011 that is still more than acceptable for the seventh man in the bullpen.

Henry Rodriguez is going to have to earn his way back into Davey Johnson's good graces. With Mattheus, Stammen, Clippard, Storen, and Soriano being handed the sixth-ninth innings the only chance Rodriguez has to pitch in a meaningful game is if it goes 15 innings, and unless the 2013 Nationals are trying to emulate the 2012 Orioles that isn't going to happen but once in a blue moon. Henry Rodriguez is going to start the season as the Nats mop-up man. He will come in when the team is up or down by four or more runs, and if he is off then either his poor performance won't matter or adjustments will be made quickly as a blow-out becomes a save situation.

There is also the fact that Henry Rodriguez was suffering from arm issues in 2012. Pin-pointing exactly where the troubles began is difficult, but Rodriguez was never the same after he struck out the side on ten pitches against the Reds. It was by far his best performance of the season, but was immediately followed by his worst as he gave up a walk-off grand slam to Joey Votto. Through the 10-pitch game Rodriguez had a 2.45 ERA and 3.00 K/BB ration. After that game he had a 9.20 ERA with a 0.66 K/BB ratio. While Henry Rodriguez is likely not as good as he was in his 14 2/3 innings before the injury he also isn't nearly as bad as he was afterwards. His 2011 season is much closer to his true talent level than 2012, but if he can even shave a tiny amount off of his BB/9 then he has a chance to be a key member of the Nats 2013 bullpen.  

The other bit of small news out of Nats camp is that Stephen Strasburg will indeed be the Opening Day starter. This was as much of a mystery as who's buried in Grant's tomb, but the announcement makes it official. Stephen Strasburg's main goal this spring has been to become more efficient. The way he chose to accomplish this was by adding deception. He felt that he needed to make his pitches look more similar out of his hand in order to fool more batters and induce more weak swings. Strasburg wants to be the one in control of the at bats. He wants the batters to swing at his pitches instead of waiting for theirs. Strasburg didn't need to improve much on this. His stuff is so good he could tell a batter what is coming and they still wouldn't be able to hit it.  

Strasburg's curve and change-up are two of the most beautiful pitches in baseball. The curve starts at a right hander's head and breaks into the middle of the strikezone. There have been many times that batters have bailed on the curve to a degree that some of them hit the deck only to look up and see the ball floating right back into the strikezone for a called strike. Strasburg's change-up is just as vicious as it starts in the middle of the strikezone, and just as it gets to the plate it stops, taunts the batter, and then drops out of the zone as their bat passes harmlessly over it. Strasburg warns that he may lose a bit of movement on these pitches by trying to make them all look the same out of his hand, but pitching is about deception and inducing weak swings won't do much to reduce Strasburg's strikeout totals and may make it so that when batters do make contact it is weak contact.  

The other added benefit of making all his pitches look the same out of his hand is that batters won't be able to pick up the rotation on the ball as easily. The curve and change-up are both wipe-out pitches that Strasburg uses most often when ahead in the count to get strikeouts. If a batter knows these two pitches that are likely to be out of the strikezone are coming they may not swing. If the pitches look like a fastball out of the hand and then more likely to be a strike they have no choice but to start their swing.

With the news of Henry Rodriguez being in the bullpen and Strasburg being the Opening Day starter the Nats are ready for Opening Day. The roster and rotation are both set and all that has to happen is for April 1 arrive with everyone healthy. An injury is the only chance for the 25 man roster to look much different than what was predicted the second after Rafael Soriano was signed. And I am certain that many Nats fans would agree with me that this Spring Training has felt more tedious an unnecessary than any other in recent memory.

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