We've spent plenty of time this offseason talking about several areas the Nationals are hoping to bolster -- the rotation, the outfield, the bench -- but there's one aspect of the roster that has barely drawn mention so far this winter: the bullpen.
That's testament to the quantity of quality arms the Nationals have stocked away down there, a unit that posted the majors' fifth-best ERA this year (3.20) despite throwing the fourth-most innings (520 23) while also leading the league in relief wins (31).
Even so, plenty of teams with top-notch bullpens could find themselves needing to make offseason changes for a number of reasons: free agency, retirement, an inconsistent arm or two.
What makes the Nationals' relief corps less in need of help, though, is the fact every returning member is 29 or younger and under club control for at least one more season.
Closer Drew Storen is only 24. All-Star Tyler Clippard will turn 27 just before pitchers and catchers report for spring training. Lefties Sean Burnett and Tom Gorzelanny are the old men of the group at 29. Flamethrower Henry Rodriguez will be 25 come Opening Day. Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen will be 28. The lone newcomer to date, right-hander Ryan Perry (acquired from Detroit for Collin Balester), will be only 25.
Why mess with a group that is both young and talented?
Perhaps because not everyone in the Nationals' bullpen is a sure thing. Storen certainly established himself as one of the best young closers in the game with his 43-save season, and Clippard (with 216 total strikeouts the last two years) may be the best setup man in baseball.
But there are still a couple of question marks behind the big two, most notably Burnett and Rodriguez.
Burnett had a strange 2011, seemingly unable to record outs in key situations for 3 12 months; his ERA on July 17 stood at 5.71 and he allowed 47 percent of inherited runners to score. Then something clicked for the left-hander, who over the remainder of the season posted a 1.16 ERA while allowing only 36 percent of inherited runners to cross the plate.
The Nationals hope the second-half version of Burnett shows up from the opening bell in 2012, not only because of his importance to the club but because he's already signed for 2.3 million.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, was alternately electric and nauseating during his first season in Washington ... sometimes within the same inning. There's no questioning the right-hander's stuff, which rivals that of any reliever in the sport. There is, however, legitimate reason to question his ability to perform at a level of consistency.
All the evidence you need to confirm that can be found in Rodriguez's winter ball numbers from Venezuela. In 19 games with Leones del Caracas, he's got a 4.12 ERA, 18 strikeouts, 14 walks and ... wait for it ... four wild pitches. This is the guy, you'll remember, who led the National League with 14 wild pitches this season, even though he had thrown far fewer innings than anybody else on the leaderboard.
The Nationals are expecting big things from Rodriguez in 2012, but they need to see some evidence of consistency out of the guy before they can just hand him the seventh inning role in front of Clippard and Storen.
And that right there might explain why the Nationals have at least some moderate interest in adding one veteran arm to their bullpen this winter. Someone who could fill the Todd Coffey role and provide some insurance in case Rodriguez andor Burnett struggles.
Who's out there? Available right-handers include Juan Cruz, Scott Linebrink, Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler. Mike Gonzalez, Jose Mijares and the ageless Arthur Rhodes are among the left-handers still on the market.