REBUILT BULLPEN COULD LEAD TO 2010 TURNAROUND
Former general manager Jim Bowden would address a specific need by signing dozens of players in the hopes that one of them might make the team.
More often than not, however, the Nationals never got any better. He was like a shotgun, hoping that one pellet out of a thousand might reach its target.
Mike Rizzo, on the other hand, is more like a rifle, where only one shot is needed to hit the target. Rizzo identifies the need and fills it, calmly, quietly, and efficiently.
In need of a centerfielder since 2006, Bowden paraded a collection of players through the outfield for three years before being forced out this past spring. Alex Escobar, Brandon Watson, Nook Logan, Ryan Langerhans, Willie Harris, and Lastings Milledge all gave it a try.
It took Rizzo five months and one trade to fix the problem when he acquired Nyjer Morgan from the Pirates last July. The Nationals were 36-76 without Morgan in 2009 and 22-26 with him.
Bowden’s answer to the team’s ongoing bullpen problem last winter was to sign a bunch of castoffs, pitchers like Ron Villone and Julian Tavarez, Kip Wells and Wil Ledezma.
Only Villone survived the season, and really, with a 4.25 ERA and five walks per nine-innings, he shouldn’t have.
The Nationals have had one of the worst bullpens in baseball since 2006. But Mike Rizzo fixed in a month what Jim Bowden couldn’t fix in four years.
Rizzo has completely reworked the bullpen for 2010. Last season, Bowden’s Opening Day bullpen consisted of Joe Beimel, Joel Hanrahan, Mike Hinckley, Wil Ledezma, Saul Rivera, and Julian Taverez, who were a combined 5-18, 6.87 in 155 innings for the Nationals.
Though Rizzo has yet to name his bullpen for next season, the Nationals have six quality arms and six positions to fill. Let’s take a look those players and see how they might help the Nationals in 2010.
Note: Hits, walks, and strikeouts per nine innings will look like this: 8.8/3.3/6.3. Batting average, on-base, and slugging percent will appear as .274/.355/.455. IRS is the percentage of inherited runners that are allowed to score.
Tyler Clippard: 4-2, 2.69 5.4/4.8/10.0 .172/.284/.349 IRS:37%
Clippard was considered the New York Yankees premier minor league pitching prospect before Joba Chamberlain and Phillip Hughes came along. He was traded to Washington following the 2007 season for relief pitcher Jonathan Albaladejo .
Clippard has three quality major league pitches (fastball, curve, and change) and can get hitters out with all of them. He sets up his curveball with his fastball which tops out at 91 mph. He is unhittable when his control is perfect, but without a dominant fastball, he gets into trouble when he’s forced to throw a lot of 2-0 and 3-1 pitches.
He walks too many (4.8 per nine-innings) but that is because he trusts his location so much that he is willing to “paint the black” on a 3-2 pitch.
Clippard was by far the Nationals’ best relief pitcher in 2009.
Jason Bergman: 2-4, 4.50 9.4/4.7/7.5 .267/.375/.450 IRS:14%
The Nationals have been trying to decide what role Bergman should play since they moved to Washington five seasons ago. He appeared solely in relief in 2009 and will likely be the long reliever in 2010.
In 14 of his appearances, the Nationals were three runs or more behind when he entered the game, and he did a credible job of keeping the team close.
He’s not a great pitcher, but Jason Bergman is certainly good enough to be the team’s long reliever.
Eddie Guardado: 1-2, 4.46 9.2/3.5/4.7 .267/.344/.479 IRS:47%
Guardado, at 38, isn’t the reliever he once was, but he is still fairly effective. From 2002-2005, he averaged 35 saves and a 2.84 ERA. Don’t let the minor league contract fool you; he’ll be in the bullpen in 2010.
He’ll have a limited role with Washington, probably as the designated lefty-against-lefty specialist. Against left-handers, Guardado’s batting average/on-base percent/slugging percent-against was just .229/.268/.349. Ron Villone, last year’s left-handed specialist, was hit hard by lefties, allowing a .293 batting average and .396 on-base percentage.
Guardado is an upgrade over Villone.
Sean Burnett: 1-1, 3.20 5.0/4.6/7.1 .157/.265/.281 IRS:17%
You would be hard-pressed to find a reliever with better statistics anywhere in the National League last season. A .157 batting average-against? You have got to be kidding.
Burnett is a terrific ground ball pitcher with great command. He has a sharp curveball and a solid change. He gets righties and lefties out equally well. His walk ratio is a little high but he gives up half the number of hits of a typical reliever, so things even out pretty well.
Brian Bruney: 5-0, 3.92 8.3/5.3/8.3 .243/.347/.412 IRS:31%
Bruney was Mike Rizzo’s first move of the offseason, obtaining the Yankee’s setup man for a Rule V draftee obtained a few days later.
His numbers were impressive last year, but he’s been even better over his last two seasons, going a combined 8-0, 2.93. Bruney has a fastball that can reach triple-digits, but he’s at his best when he’s throwing in the mid 90’s with good movement. He has an outstanding curve and a good change.
He’s described as having a bulldog mentality, someone who won’t back down with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth with no outs and a 3-2 count. The Nationals haven’t had many of those types of pitchers over the years.
Hopefully, he’ll be a leader in the bullpen and as Matt Capps’ setup man.
Matt Capps: 3-5, 2.58 7.5/1.4/7.o .226/.263/.339 IRS: 42%
The numbers above reflect the average of Capps’ two seasons as closer with the Pittsburgh Pirates prior to 2009. He imploded last season, going 4-8, 5.80, allowing four more hits per nine innings, twice the walks and fewer strikeouts. He allowed 57 percent of inherited runners to score.
It’s not that I’m being nice to Capps, I’m being fair. He suffered extensive elbow problems last year, causing him to miss several games in May and was day-to-day through the end of June. Mike Rizzo is betting—and I agree—that Capps’ 2009 season was an anomaly caused by injury.
In his first two years as closer, Capps allowed less than a runner per inning. His blown save rate was very low, comparable with Chad Cordero in 2005 and 2006. His fastball exceeds 95 mph with good movement. His secondary pitch—his curve—is above average but he seldom uses it, relying instead on his heat.
Capps has amazing control. For his career, he has allowed just 1.7 walks per nine-innings and has a fastball to walk ration over 4:1.
Capps is not a great closer, but he’s a very good one. He signed a one-year contract, which should give Drew Storen enough time to mature and be ready for 2011.
The Washington Nationals will be a better team in 2010, thanks to a much better starting rotation. But without a solid bullpen, all of those late-inning leads just won’t matter. From the first man out of the bullpen to the last, the team will get quality innings from quality relievers.
Bullpens don’t win games for teams; they keep them from losing. At this point, I’m guessing they will keep the losses under 83.
And it could even get better.