On an extremely stable team, the only questions about the Opening Day lineup for the Nationals are at the back end of the bullpen. As of right now, six of the seven available spots in the ‘pen are already locked up: Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen, Ryan Mattheus, and Zach Duke have already solidified their roles. The seventh spot, however, is still relatively up in the air. There are a few candidates, some more likely than others:
Henry Rodriguez: Now healthy, the job will likely be H-Rod’s to lose. He suffered from an elbow injury last year and, as a result, had a 5.83 ERA in 29.1 IP. Also nicknamed MPH-Rod for his 100 MPH fastball, Rodriguez is well known for his velocity and lack of control. He struck out a strong 23.7% of the batters he faced last season, but also walked an extremely high 16.8%. A major motivating factor to keep Rodriguez in the Major League bullpen is the fact that he is out of minor league options, and would have to be exposed to waivers to be sent to the minors, from which he would almost certainly be claimed. If he fails to put it all together for another year, the Nationals could be finally convinced to cut ties with him, which might open the door for another of these pitchers.
Bill Bray: Heading into Spring Training, Bray looked like the minor league deal invitee with the best chance to make the Opening Day roster. He had been a productive reliever with the Cincinnati Reds before his performance suffered as the result of an injury last year. As a lefty, he seemed to fit the Nationals’ needs perfectly, but early struggles in Spring Training resulted in his being sent down to minor league camp to work on his arm slot. If he does indeed return to form, he would likely not make the major league team until midseason, and might not be able to do so unless Rodriguez struggles.
Fernando Abad: Abad’s story is just the opposite of Bray’s. He came into camp after a 5.10 ERA last year with the Houston Astros and proceeded to blow away all expectations, with a 2.57 ERA in seven innings in Spring Training. He is also a lefty, which means he fits the bullpen well, but given his career regular season numbers, he will likely start the year in the minors. He, like Bray, could make it up with some success and failure by Rodriguez or an injury to another reliever.
Erik Davis: Davis had a career year in the minors last season, with a 2.71 ERA between AA and AAA, and carried his success over to Spring Training. He had a 1.13 ERA in eight innings and made a favorable impression on the big league coaches. However, he has only pitched 13.2 career innings at AAA, so he will likely spend 2013 there. Only 26, he could make a case for a bullpen job in 2014 if any space becomes available, and perhaps for a while to come after that.
Christian Garcia: Garcia is the longest shot of the bunch for quite a few reasons. Despite his great success out of the pen last year, with a 2.13 ERA in 12.2 IP, which earned him a spot on the playoff roster, he was being groomed for a starter’s role heading into this season. As if that weren’t enough to keep him out of the bullpen, he suffered a partially torn forearm tendon in Spring Training that will likely keep him out beyond Opening Day. If the spot were to be filled based solely on ability, Garcia would likely take it, but circumstance dictates that he will most likely spend 2013 toiling as a starter in AAA.