The Nats Final Off-Season Issue
This is the time of the off-season where teams sign players and make moves few hear about, and if they do they aren't expected to have much of an impact. Now is the time of the January free agent. Sure, there are guys like LaRoche, Lohse, Soriano, and Bourn still on the market, but they are not the typical January free agent. The January free agent is that guy looking for a minor league deal and invite to Spring Training. He is the guy hoping to get one more shot to wear the uniform and play in the big leagues.
The Nats don't need a lot of these types of players, but they may benefit from a couple. As it stand right now there are two spots up for grabs on the Nats 25 man roster. The rotation, line-up, and bench are set. The only real question is if it will be LaRoche or Morse manning first in 2013, but that has no impact on the two spots the Nats have open. The Nats need a sixth and seventh man in the bullpen. They have a number of internal options and if they decide to forgo the Christian Garcia as a starter experiment then suddenly there is one less spot in the bullpen.
The men that will be competing for that spot include Bill Bray, Henry Rodriguez, Erik Davis, and a few January free agents that have yet to be signed or have had their signings go unnoticed. All of this puts the Nats in a great position. There were times in the recent past where the Nats would enter Spring Training with the entire rotation or outfield up for grabs and the men competing for those spots were wildly unimpressive. Times have changed and the Nats only need a reliever or two, and more importantly those are the sixth and seventh men in the bullpen they need.
The Nationals have a good back-end of the bullpen with Storen, Clippard, and Stammen. When the Nationals enter the seventh inning with a lead of three runs or less those are the three who will pitch. Other situations other relievers will be relied upon. Davey Johnson uses his bullpen well and in a game with a close deficit he isn't going to risk the health of his top relievers in a game the Nats have a 25% or less chance to win. That is when Mattheus, Duke, or whoever the last two guys are will pitch.
Garcia should be given strong consideration for one of those last two spots. He proved at the end of 2012 that he could get major league hitters out and he could be highly effective in the role Stammen filled last season. The Nats want to stretch Garcia out to be a starter, but in a way his talents would be wasted at AAA. The Nats could use him as the right-handed long reliever to keep him stretched out, but to also have him available out of the bullpen, and if the Nats starters pitch as good as expected there won't be much long relief work.
There are a couple other options for improving the Nats bullpen. Three of the four big names that remain free agents are Boras clients, and as recently as last season Mike Rizzo gave a Boras client a pillow deal in January when he rescued Edwin Jackson from the free agent market. If the Nats lose LaRoche and pick up a pick in the compensation round that could make surrendering their top pick more palatable. The Nats could sign Kyle Lohse and move Detwiler into the pen, but with Zach Duke already set up as the lefty long reliever and with how good Detwiler pitched in 2012 that doesn't make a lot of sense.
The move that makes the most sense is for the Nats to sign Rafael Soriano. Soriano is going to have to make a few concessions. Drew Storen deserves the closers spot. Soriano has a slightly lower career ERA at 2.78 compared to 2.96, but Storen is only 25 and is due for a big season in 2013. Storen has shown a willingness to pitch in other roles in the bullpen, but he is best as the Nats closer. Likely this wouldn't be something that is decided right away and the two would get to compete in Spring Training, but Soriano wants to close. He doesn't want a chance to compete to close, but also at this point his options are becoming limited.
Soriano turned down a $14 million option to return to the Yankees, and then turned down the $13.3 million qualifying offer with the thought that he would get a long-term deal. That market hast materialized and not only will Soriano not be getting a long term deal he also won't be getting the money he already turned down. The price for Soriano is still going to be high for a reliever, but it is less than what the Nats would have given LaRoche and fills a need. It is also unlikely to happen, but that isn't a bad thing. The back end of the Nats bullpen is good, and Rizzo has proven in the past he can find relievers at a cost controlled price.