As well as the Washington Nationals bullpen pitched in 2012, left-hander Sean Burnett still managed to fly under the radar a little bit. Nats fans came to expect the same, quietly outstanding work from Burnett without the fanfare of a closer’s role, and for most of the season Burnett delivered. But bone spurs in his elbow threw a wrench in the 30-year-old’s stress-free season, and now Burnett faces an off-season of uncertainty following surgery and an opt-out of his contract
2012 Projection (ZiPS): 5-4, 3.79 ERA, 70 games, 57 IP
2012 Actual: 1-2, 2.38 ERA, 70 games, 56.2 IP
Burnett began the season as the top left-handed option in the Washington bullpen, a late-inning bridge to the closers at the time, Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez. It says something about the quality of Burnett’s work that manager Davey Johnson never really considered Burnett for the full-time closer’s role, either in the spring after Drew Storen‘s elbow issues occurred, or in May after Lidge was hurt and Rodriguez imploded. Not wanting to tamper with success, Johnson let Burnett remain right where he was.
Where he was, was a very good place indeed. Burnett didn’t give up an earned run until May 13 and steamrolled through the first half of the season with an ERA just south of 2. He did even pick up a pair of saves in May in the down time before Tyler Clippard took over the closer’s mantel. After the All-Star Break though, things got dicey.
At first, it was assumed Burnett was just being overworked. Johnson’s bullpen pitchers threw the second-most innings of any bullpen in the National League, behind only the “four innings or 80 pitches” Colorado Rockies. So eventually all that work would have to take a toll on a pitcher, and Johnson gave Burnett a pair of extended rests down the stretch to try and combat the assumed fatigue.
But the residual shaky pitching never went away. After posting a 5.64 ERA in the month of September, Burnett got smacked around in his first Division Series appearance, in Game 2 in St. Louis, surrendering three hits and a walk in 2/3 of an inning, allowing four runs. So it was no surprise when, after the season, word got out that Burnett was actually pitching with bone spurs in his elbow that required surgery.
Burnett should be fine for Opening Day in 2013. The question is, where will he be pitching? Even taking his second half performance into account, Burnett had another excellent season, his fourth straight quality year in a Washington uniform. Burnett and the Nationals had mutual options on his 2013 contract, which the Nationals exercised, but Burnett declined. Both sides would like to work out something to keep Burnett in DC, but the pitcher would like to nail down a multi-year deal — which he should get, somewhere. After Saturday, the Nationals will have to compete with the rest of the teams in baseball for Burnett’s services, and if the price gets too high, Washington could lean on someone like Mike Gonzalez to try and fill Burnett’s role.
Season Highlight: Burnett converted one of his few save chances in Philadelphia on May 21, nailing down a 2-1 over the Phillies.
Chien Ming Wang