Evaluating the Bullpen

A hallmark of the Washington Nationals surprising 80-win season in 2011 was their fine bullpen. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the pen’s 31 wins topped all National League staffs (the Miami Marlins were second with 30).

The Nationals bullpen pitched 520.2 innings (source: MLB.Com), second most in the NL behind Atlanta’s 522.1. Their 3.20 ERA marked the fourth best in the NL and the fifth lowest in major league baseball. Overall, the Nationals’ bullpen contributed more to the club’s third place finish than any other facet.

All-Star Tyler Clippard cemented his place as one of the National League’s top set-up men with a NL-leading 38 holds and an insane WHIP of 0.84, the best in baseball for all pitchers who pitched at least 60 innings last season. Drew Storen quietly became an excellent closer, saving 43 (in 48 save opportunities) of Washington’s 80 wins. His 1.02 WHIP was best among NL closers except for the St. Louis Cardinals’ tandem of Fernando Salas and Jason Motte. Both appear poised for strong 2012 campaigns.

How about the rest of the group? While Sean Burnett, now departed Doug Slaten, free agent Todd Coffey, as well as Henry (H-Rod) Rodriguez struggled at times, by the end of the season, Johnson had a solid “A” group – Burnett, Rodriguez, Clippard, and Storen and “B” group – Atahualpa Severino, Coffey, Ryan Mattheus, and Rodriguez to turn to in any situation.

Johnson even enjoyed effective long relief outings from converted southpaw starter Tom Gorzelanny and righty Craig Stammen. All are young, ranging in age from 24 (Storen) to 29 (Burnett and Gorzelanny). New acquisition Ryan Perry, obtained from the Detroit Tigers for Colin Balester early in the off-season, is 25 and boasts a power arm.

So how does the Washington bullpen stack up in 2012? Major league bullpens are notorious for wild swings in performance from one year to the next. Using Bill James’ 2012 projections, let’s look at the team’s strengths and weaknesses and one need Mike Rizzo must address.

Strengths:

  1. Closing out wins. The back end of the Nats bullpen looks strong. Even though James projects some regression from Clippard (3.03 ERA, 3.85 FIP), probably based on his .197 batting average for balls in play (Babip), he still projects to be an elite set-up man. His only weakness is the long ball. Clippard allowed 11 home runs in 2011. Storen proved himself a bona fide closer last year. With his control (20 walks in 75.1 IP, 1.02 WHIP) and devastating slider. James projects Storen to be just as good in 2012 (2.63 ERA, 3.21 FIP).
  2. Depth. Burnett and H-Rod have experience closing games or handling high pressure 8th inning situations. Mattheus, Perry, and Severino provide power arms who can set-up in a pinch. Stammen, Gorzelanny, and possibly Detwiler can pitch long relief or help Johnson in late game match-up battles. If Cole Kimball recovers from injury, he may also help during the dog days of late summer when other arms fatigue.
  3. Power. Clippard struck out 104 on 88.1 innings, Storen K’d 74 and H-Rod fanned 70 in 65.2 IP. Gorzelanny, Perry, Stammen, and possibly Severino can also get a strikeout to escape a jam.
  4. Better starting pitching. With Stephen Strasburg on board for most of the season, Jordan Zimmermann freed from innings limits, and Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals finally have a pitching rotation with the ability to go deeper into games. Improved starting pitching will give the relievers more rest and fewer “high stress” outings.

Weaknesses:

  1. Experience. As note above, the Nationals’ relief pitchers are young. Other than Clippard (and Burnett until last season) none have proven they can be consistently effective. More important, none have pitched in late season pressure. If the Nats are contending for a playoff spot by mid-August, how will they react?
  2. Left-handed relief. If Burnett fails to recapture his effectiveness – and James predicts he will improve slightly from 2011 (3.93 ERA, 4.19 FIP) – and Severino isn’t ready, the club lacks good alternatives. Journeyman Lee Hyde is the only southpaw currently on the Syracuse roster.

One way to remedy these problems is to sign veteran free agents. Righties Luis Ayala (34 years-old, former Nat), Chad Qualls (33), Dan Wheeler (35), and Coffey (31) had at least decent seasons in 2011.

One intriguing option is no longer available. Former Cincinnati Reds’ closer Francisco Cordero has reportedly signed with the Toronto Blue Jays. His signing marks a missed opportunity for the Nationals. Cordero saved 37 games last season, held opposing batters to a .198 average, and matched Storen’s 1.02 WHIP, all while pitching in one of baseball’s best ballparks for hitters. Cordero could have given Washington a veteran presence who has been through play-off pressure and a great back-up plan should Storen suffer injury or become ineffective.

Another option may soon disappear as well. MLB.Com reports that the Angels are hard after Ayala.

The free agent pickings are even slimmer for left-handers. The “best” of the group left is: Arthur Rhodes (42 years-old, 4.64 ERA in 2011, 1.36 WHIP), Michael Gonzalez (33, 4.39, 1.35) and Joe Beimel (35, 5.33 ERA, 1.70 WHIP). An intriguing dark horse option is former Dodgers southpaw Hong-Chih Kuo. He struggled in limited duty last season (9.00 ERA), but his career numbers look good (3.73 ERA, 1.21 WHIP) and he is only 30. Rhodes is ancient, but does have playoff experience.

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Tags: Atahualpa Severino Cole Kimball Craig Stammen Drew Storen Gio Gonzalez Henry Rodriguez Jordan Zimmermann Ryan Mattheus Ryan Perry Sean Burnett Stephen Strasburg Tom Gorzelanny Tyler Clippard Washington Nationals

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