Washington Nationals: Is the bullpen worthy of the hype?

Washington Nationals closer Rafael Soriano untucks his shirt after a save.
For the Washington Nationals bullpen to live up to the hype, Rafael Soriano needs a ton of untucks. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Washington Nationals are a talented team, no question. After posting the best record in baseball in 2012, the Nationals should make a serious run at a World Series appearance in 2013.

After all, when you have Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez anchoring the pitching staff, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Denard Span and Adam LaRoche manning the lineup and Rafael Soriano closing games, winning the World Series doesn’t appear to be an outlandish goal.

The batting order will produce runs, and the rotation will do its job. And, at first glance, it appears the bullpen is too good to not do a good job. After all, Soriano, who rocked the Yankee pinstripes in 2012, dominated as New York’s closer, and Storen and Clippard both performed well manning the back end of Washington’s bullpen in 2012. Craig Stammen exceeded expectations as a long reliever, Ryan Mattheus did well, and overall, the Washington Nationals had a bullpen that seemed insurmountable.

However, in the playoffs, the bullpen collapsed. Washington blew a 6-0 lead in game five of the NLDS, giving up nine runs in six innings and six runs in the last three innings. Storen came into the game in the ninth inning, with the Washington Nationals leading 7-5. Instead of sending the Nationals to the NLCS and recording the save, Storen gave up four runs, which led to Washington’s downfall.

Instead of opting to let Storen close for another season, the Washington Nationals threw lots of money at Soriano. So, to succeed, the Nationals will need a successful year from Soriano.

Soriano saved 42 games in 46 chances in 2012, and he posted a stellar 2.26 ERA. However, so far, he hasn’t been as good. Soriano has a 4.50 ERA and one blown save, and while the Washington Nationals are 8-0 in games where Soriano has pitched, he allowed two earned runs in back-to-back games. Storen and Clippard haven’t been great either so far, so if Soriano can’t pitch like he did in 2012, the Nationals will be in trouble.

Storen received a chance to close out a crucial win on Friday, April 12, when the Washington Nationals took on the Atlanta Braves with the chance to tie for first place. Washington led 4-1 at the top of the eighth, but Clippard allowed one run and was erratic, as he threw 17 balls in 35 pitches. Storen relieved Clippard and escaped a huge jam by inducing a deep Dan Uggla fly out, but in the ninth, he struggled again.

The Washington Nationals failed to hold their lead, as Storen allowed two runs (one earned) in the ninth. Stammen surrendered a two-run home run to light-hitting Ramiro Pena, capping off a terrible performance from a bullpen that’s supposed to be one of the best in baseball. The Nationals lost 6-4, because the bullpen allowed 10 baserunners and five runs in three innings.

So far, the bullpen has looked anything but dominant. Sure, the season just started, but even in past seasons, Clippard, Storen, Soriano, Stammen and the rest of the relievers haven’t been good. Clippard posted a mediocre 3.72 ERA in 2012, and while Storen’s 2.37 ERA is good, he only pitched 30.1 innings. Clippard and Storen had a combined 3.32 ERA, which is decent, but not great by any means.

If Soriano can’t live up to his contract and the lofty expectations set by his dominant 2012 performance, the Washington Nationals will have even more uncertainly in the bullpen. Storen and Clippard aren’t capable of being shut-down relievers and holding every lead, and so far, it looks like no one on the Nationals is. Washington’s bullpen ERA is 5.33, which, somehow, is the second worst in baseball.

Again, there have only been 16 games in the young season. However, the fact that everyone in the bullpen has performed so poorly is concerning. Stamens’ 4.15 ERA is the best in the whole bullpen, and his ERA is below average. Clippard isn’t great either, and he will cost the Washington Nationals at times with erratic pitching.

The Washington Nationals are a great team overall, as they have a deep, talented lineup and a deep, talented pitching staff. However, it’s going to take some help from the bullpen, and the Nationals aren’t getting it. It’s unlikely Stammen, Clippard and Matheus repeat their success from 2012, and overall, it’s unlikely that the Nationals’ bullpen lives up to the hype.

Is the team worthy of the hype? Yes. Is the bullpen worthy of the hype? No.

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