With the season over, it’s time to turn our attention to ways the Nats can improve in 2014. Most journalists have been focusing on who the team’s next manager will be or who should start at 2B next year. Obviously, these are important decisions. Yet, for me, the key for Washington will be settling on a drama-free bullpen that it can count on to hold leads.
Love him or hate him, they will have Rafael Soriano slotted in the closer role. Given the size of his contract and the promises made to him upon signing it, he is going to have to have an extended stretch of meltdowns (a la mid-August of 2013, but roughly twice as long) to lose that designation. His overall numbers were not that bad, and his lifetime ERA (2.82) and WHIP (1.067) belie a top-tier talent. Also of note: he always seems to have the most trouble statistically in his first year with a new team (who knows how he would have followed up that 1.73 ERA if he had had spent more than a season with the Rays)!
Tyler “Old Reliable” Clippard will once again trot out in the 8th to work his magic. I could make the argument that he is actually the most bankable player on the team over the course of a season. Guys like this don’t grow on trees and it’s a blessing that the Nationals have him locked up for another two years.
Now here’s where things get a little dicey. Personally, I no longer have faith in Drew Storen as an option out of the pen. He has great stuff, but the mental side has begun to overshadow all his physical gifts. Whether it’s venting about his place in the pen, having his mom do the same so publicly, or the simple lack of focus involved with keeping the ball down, 2013 was not his finest hour. If Game 5 against the Cards was a Fukushima-level disaster, then this season was the equivalent fallout tainting the entire Pacific Ocean. In both cases, there’s no guarantee it will ever get cleaned up. No question he could turn it all around before Opening Day, but when you are trying to get to and win playoff games, “could” is not how you want to start your season.
No, I think the 7th inning should belong to Craig Stammen. Since his conversion to full-time reliever, the man has sported a sub-2.50 ERA. His WHIP is a little high for my taste in cases where runners are inherited, but if he is starting innings, that doesn’t trouble me so much. Moreover, the eye test confirms that he rarely has a bad day…and sometimes can be dominant.
Of course, this frees up the primary long reliever role, a role perfectly suited for Tanner Roark. It seems like the Illinois native is an ideal innings-eater. His ERA+ of 252 almost seems like a misprint; especially when you consider that it exactly doubled that of Stephen Strasburg and was significantly higher than league leader Clayton Kershaw (194). While he could compete for a rotation spot, something tells me Ross Detwiler and either Taylor Jordan or a free agent will lock up the back end.
So that’s four chairs taken behind the right-field wall at Nationals Park, with not a left-hander in the bunch. Unless he has a bad spring, I see Ian Krol as the overwhelming favorite for lefty specialist. He had a decent rookie year and seems to have the arm and makeup to handle the duties, even at 22 years old. But, just to be safe…
If I were Mike Rizzo, I would bring in another proven southpaw. In my estimation, there are four primary options coming free this winter: Scott Downs, JP Howell, Boone Logan, and Eric O’Flaherty. They are all fairly comparable from a both a cost and stat standpoint, give or take a few million. Any of the four would be welcome additions, but I’d put my money on Downs for a few reasons. First, he’s gonna be 38 by Spring Training, so he won’t need a long-term deal. Second, even though he is currently making the most of the four, the others are all around 30 years old and stand to see a substantial uptick while he will likely come up ever so slightly from $5 million. Third, he might give some minor insight into the rival Braves from the brief time he was there this year. And finally, getting back to his age, he could be the steadying older presence in a relatively young pen, since Soriano doesn’t seem to fit the mentor role.
Okay, let’s recap. We have Soriano, Clippard, Stammen, Roark, Krol, and a new lefty. Assuming the Nats go with a seven-man bullpen, that leaves one slot. Guess who’s nabbing it… Unfortunately, it’ll be Mr. Storen unless we can find a taker for him and his reasonable contract. If that does somehow happen, Ryan Mattheus would be next in line. He of the 1.9 WHIP in 2013.
Because nothing about relief pitching is ever truly drama-free