Nationals Analysis: Can the Nats’ Bullpen Shoulder The Load?


The signing of Max Scherzer has prompted a lot of discussion, both local and national, on what the Nationals rotation will look like. Will they be enough to carry the Nationals to their first World Series? Could this be the best rotation baseball has ever seen or is it just the best in recent memory?

Lost in all of this is the team’s current bullpen situation, which looks as if it will be starkly different in 2015 than it did just a few months ago.

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Through the first half of the 2014 season, the Nationals had their bullpen set up perfectly to handle the back third of games. Drew Storen pitched the 7th; Tyler Clippard handled the 8th; and Rafael Soriano put teams away in the 9th.

Now, not even a full month into 2015, only Drew Storen still remains on the roster. Soriano’s post-All Star break collapse necessitated his dismissal. The desperate need for anyone other than Danny Espinosa to play second base and an uncertain contract situation led to the trade of Clippard. Add to that the trade of Ross Detwiler, and the Nationals are left with 200 innings that they’ll have to find a way to account for in 2015.

At first glance, the signing of Scherzer might not appear to help that situation. Over his six plus seasons in the majors, Scherzer has managed only one complete game. It doesn’t look like he’ll offer many chances for the bullpen to take a night off.

Fortunately, the Nationals have a little help there. Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez may have only notched only one and four complete games respectively, but Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann are much more accomplished in that area. Fister has managed 10 complete games over his six seasons in the majors, and Jordan Zimmermann has eight, including a spectacular no-hitter that concluded the Nats’ regular season last year.

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What’s even more encouraging is when we look at the rotation a little more closely. After all, complete games aren’t necessarily the only way to measure the amount of stress that a staff puts on its bullpen. There’s also how many innings they manage to take up on their own.

Of the Nationals’ five starters, including Scherzer, only Strasburg and Gonzalez average under 6 innings per start for their career, and that’s just barely at 5.96. Zimmermann (6.15), Scherzer (6.16), and Fister (6.43) all manage more than two thirds of a game per outing.

It’s true the Nationals will miss Tanner Roark in the rotation. Through his brief career, he’s managed 6.38 innings per start (though the sample size may be admittedly small), which is second best on the team. But it’s also true that he could be a valuable asset in the bullpen. He performed well there on a limited basis in 2013 and he’ll likely fill the role as a long reliever and occasional spot starter if the Nats find themselves in a pinch.

That will help tremendously with the Nationals’ real bullpen problem, which is depth. Unless the team pulls the trigger on guys like Burke Badenhop, Ronald BelisarioCasey Janssen, or takes a flyer on Francisco Rodriguez, they’re basically hoping that their current stable of guys can shoulder the load or that Heath Bell finds a time machine back to 2010.

That might be asking a lot. It doesn’t seem like there’s anyone currently on the staff who can live up to the lofty standard that Tyler Clippard set for an 8th inning pitcher. Aaron Barrett and Jerry Blevins seem like they’ll get the first shot at it, but given their 2014 performances, it’s hard seeing one of them running away with it.

There’s not really anyone else who looks primed for a breakout season as a reliever. Craig Stammen, Blake Treinen, and Taylor Jordan all seem like pretty mediocre options. In all honesty, it would take a miracle of development for one of the Nationals’ current relievers to suddenly morph into to a pitcher that can get the ball to Storen in the ninth.

There’s also the matter of what happens if Storen is injured or struggles for a stretch. Even without Soriano, Washington always had Clippard as an option should they need a makeshift closer. Now there’s no safety net. If Storen should falter, it may be a Code Red in the Washington bullpen.

With February coming on, there’s still plenty of time for the Nationals to make a move, and there’s still more than a few options out on the open market. Nationals fans can spend a few days celebrating Mike Rizzo, the Lerner family, and the fact that they landed a premiere free agent. It’s certainly not time to hit the panic button.

But if spring training rolls around, and Mike Rizzo hasn’t mended the one wound the Nats still have festering, it might be time to worry. Not because they might wear their bullpen out early. No, the starting rotation should eat enough innings to keep that from happening. That being said, even three years after Drew Storen first melted down, they still haven’t put together a group that can shut a game down when it gets dicey.