Tuesday, January 25, 2011, 9:17 a.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
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The unquestioned strength of the 2010 Nationals was a bullpen that managed to post some of the best numbers in baseball despite also logging the most innings in baseball.
Nationals relievers churned out 545 23 innings (an average of 3 13 innings per game) yet collectively recorded a 3.35 ERA that ranked fifth in the majors. They accomplished that in large part because of their ability to make opposing batters swing and miss with great regularity; only the Padres and Braves bullpens notched more strikeouts.
With most of the key participants returning -- particularly Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett -- there's every reason to believe the Nationals' relief corps will once again be the team's biggest strength in 2011. There is, however, one potentially glaring hole that could sidetrack the entire endeavor: The lack of an established closer.
One fundamental reason for the Nationals' overall bullpen success in 2010 was the presence of Matt Capps closing out games for the season's first four months. Capps, who wound up representing the franchise at the All-Star Game, served as a stabilizing force in the ninth inning. He not only saved games at a high rate of success, he allowed everyone else in the bullpen to slide into roles that maximized their abilities and experience levels.
The Nationals did a mostly admirable job finishing out the season after Capps was dealt to the Twins at the July trade deadline, but the unit was not nearly as reliable as it was prior to that point. Storen, with only three months of big-league experience, was thrust into the closer's role. Clippard and Burnett were asked to bear the brunt of the load setting up Storen. (Clippard faded down the stretch, though Burnett excelled right through season's end.) And Joel Peralta, who was non-tendered in December, thrived himself in a middle relief and occasional setup role.
General manager Mike Rizzo took steps this winter to bolster his already strong bullpen by adding power right-handers Henry Rodriguez (acquired from the Athletics in the Josh Willingham trade), Todd Coffey (whose one-year contract was officially announced yesterday) and Elvin Ramirez (a Rule 5 draftee). Those three, along with Collin Balester, Craig Stammen and Chad Gaudin, give the Nationals plenty of depth heading into spring training and give Rizzo and manager Jim Riggleman plenty of choices once final roster moves must be made in late-March.
But the group still lacks a proven closer. Team officials believe Storen will ultimately assume the role, though they're reluctant to hand it over to the 23-year-old who was only drafted out of Stanford 19 months ago. So they're likely to give Storen some help in the form of Clippard, Burnett and Rodriguez (who will probably possess the best fastball on the roster until Stephen Strasburg returns from Tommy John surgery).
Is that enough, though, to ensure the Nationals' relief corps continues to excel as the unquestioned strength of this team? Can the unit survive, and even thrive, without a bona fide closer?
The Nationals appear willing to find out.