Nationals Bullpen: Depth Chart Discussions

Natstown had to suffer through some reliever identity issues early in 2012, but that doesn’t appear it will be the case in 2013. After getting guys healthy and a high-profile signing to shore up the end of games, Washington appears to have one of the more dynamic set of late inning pitchers in the majors. Stephen Strasburg owners must be be pleased.

The closer:
Rafael Soriano

In January, the Nationals quasi-shocked the baseball world when they handed Soriano a $28 million contract to take over as their new closer. Mariano Rivera’s knee injury couldn’t have come at a more perfect time for Soriano, who likely drooled at the idea of racking up enough saves to allow him to opt out of his New York contract and land another juicy free agent deal. Even with draft pick compensation tied to him, he pulled it off, parlaying his 42 saves and 3.25 SIERA into a new gig in the nation’s capital. Soriano heads into his age 33 season seeing recent improvements in his strikeout numbers, although his fastball velocity and SwStr% have been relatively flat the past three seasons. The real key to his success will be the free passes; Soriano’s worst seasons have come when his BB% climbs into double digits. He’s no Craig Kimbrel, but as long as his stuff doesn’t fall off a cliff, he probably has as much job security as any closer in baseball. He should be drafted as a top-5ish closer in mixed leagues.

The setup guys:
Drew Storen
Tyler Clippard

The guy that really got the raw end of the Soriano signing was Storen. Storen missed part of 2012 with elbow problems, but returned and eventually re-assumed his ninth-inning role. He was effective, too, putting up a 2.37 ERA (3.17 SIERA) in his 37 appearances. Of course, what Nats fans remember is his implosion during the final game of the National League Divisional Series, which ended Washington’s season in horrifying fashion. Storen lacks elite strikeout numbers but he couples his low 20’s K% with a minuscule walk rate in the single digits (7.7% career). There was some concern about how close to 100% he was last season, especially since his first appearances off the disabled list saw his fastball clock in around 91-92 mph — 3-4 mph below his career norms. However, he rediscovered that lost velocity by the time the season was over so there shouldn’t be much concern about lingering issues. Storen might not have the closer job any longer, but he should slide comfortably into a role as one of the top setup men in baseball.

Clippard got a shot in the ninth inning last year because of Storen’s injury. Between 2009 and 2011, the former Yankee farmhand established himself one of the more effective setup men in baseball, seeing his K/BB climb every year which corresponded to a yearly xFIP improvement. After Storen went down, Davey Johnson publicly hemmed and hawed about moving Clippard out of his comfortable setup role, but poor outings by guys like Henry Rodriguez eventually forced his hand. Clippard pitched effectively in the role, although he did see some his peripherals tail off a bit (K% and SwStr% down, BB% up). In 2013, he’ll move back to the seventh and eighth innings and the Soriano signing moves him out of closer handcuff territory. He should still be a useful cog in holds leagues, but with him being a couple rungs down the totem pole, there might be higher upside plays available in drafts.

Middle relief:
Craig Stammen
Henry Rodriguez
Ryan Mattheus
Zach Duke

Stammen has been a quiet success story in Washington’s pen after transitioning from a starter three years ago. His 13.4% SwStr% is borderline elite, although it’d be nice if his BB% dropped back from near 10% the last two seasons towards his career average of 7.4%. His issue in fantasy circles is that he’s well removed from the eight and ninth innings with the guys ahead of him and the Nats like to utilize him as anywhere between a one-out guy and a swingman. This makes it hard to predict innings and holds.

Rodriguez and his 97-98 mph fastball had a chance to lock down the closer gig last year, but a series of brutal performances (including a couple where wild pitches played a key role) did him in. Control setting Rodriguez back? That seems to be the story of his career. Interestingly, all projections actually have his ugly, ugly BB% decreasing back to pre-2011 levels even though it has trended up every year since 2010. It’s impossible to put a lot of stock in that, especially since he is coming off minor elbow surgery this offseason. Unless you are in dire need of strikeouts and can sacrifice the WHIP hit, it’s tough to see Rodriguez making a huge impact in fantasy without major changes.

Mattheus just isn’t exciting. He’s the first guy we’ve hit on this list whose K% is down into the mid-teens, although he does couple it with a single-digit walk rate. While his fastball can run up into the low-mid 90’s, it’s not an overly deceptive pitch. Combine that with an OK splitter and otherwise average offspeed stuff and he’s just bullpen filler eating low-leverage innings. Duke actually pitched better in his small major league sample than he did in Triple-A last year. Like Mattheus, he also tends to pitch to contact. His ability to go multiple innings may give him a leg up on the long reliever slot.

Looking up the totem pole:
Christian Garcia
Cole Kimball
Bill Bray

Garcia would likely displace one of the above if he wasn’t battling a tendon tear in his forearm. If he can get healthy (and stay healthy), he should be able to carve out a niche somewhere in Washington given his above-average stuff and solid walk rate. On most other teams, he’d be a nice sleeper as the “guy who comes out of nowhere to steal saves” but with a team as heavy on arms at the back of the ‘pen as the Nationals are, that seems unlikely. Still, keep tabs on his progress because he’s the best candidate for upward mobility in the holds department on this team.

Kimball is a nice story as he works his way back from career-threatening shoulder issues. He’s not a candidate to break camp with the team but may see some innings later this summer. Bray was signed to compete for a job as a lefty specialist, but word out of Viera hasn’t been positive. He’ll probably shuttle to Triple-A and work on some things in the hopes of earning a midseason callup.

There are few things Colin loves more in life than a pitcher with a single-digit BB%. Find him on Twitter @soxczar.

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9 years ago

Henry Rodriguez may not make the bullpen. Fernando Abad might take his place.