Washington Nationals offseason preview: Bullpen

Tyler Clippard was among the top bullpen specialists in the NL last season. (Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

Want to guess how many innings the Nationals bullpen threw in 2011? Five hundred and twenty. That’s the equivalent of nearly 58 total games, about a third of the entire season. Only three teams — the Braves, Orioles and Pirates — had their relievers throw more innings than the Nats did this past year. The unit as a whole was above average, ranking in the top 10 in Wins Above Replacement, FIP and ERA. It’s a pen that lacks a viable lefty for the time being, so look for Mike Rizzo to rectify that over the winter. Let’s have a look at our cast.

Tyler Clippard (RHP)

2011 Salary: $443M
2012 Salary: $1.5MM-$2MM through Super 2 Arbitration
2011 stats: 88 innings, 10 strikeouts per nine innings, 1.83 ERA, 3.17 FIP

Clippard is the closest thing the Nationals have to a good lefty in the bullpen thanks to his plus-change-up. Hi strikeout to walk ratio was almost three times better against lefties than it was against righties in 2011. His fastball, slider and curveball are all average or below. He’s one heck of a relief pitcher, one of the few who performs at an elite level without a sexy, upper-90s heater. He’s set to make around $2 million in arbitration next year, a number that should probably be higher but, unfortunately for Clippard, saves play a big role in reliever arbitration. To say Clippard’s workload last season was heavy would be a freakish understatement. He threw 88 innings, third in the league among relievers. He’ll endure a bit of a regression next year (his .197 BABIP from 2011 is unsustainable) and while most of it will just be regression to the mean, a tired arm will likely contribute a tad.

Drew Storen (RHP)

2011 Salary: $418M
2012 Salary: About the same
2011 Stats: 75 innings, 8.8 strikeouts per nine, 2.75 ERA, 3.32 FIP

Storen was about as safe a commodity as you’ll get in the amateur draft. The Stanford alum was always going to be a reliever, was going to move quickly through the minors and was going to make hitters look like morons with that mid-80s slide piece of his. He’s done all that and the Nats have your classic, power fastball/slider arm at the backend of their bullpen on the cheap for the next five years. Look for a sub-three ERA next year.

Henry Rodriguez (RHP)

2011 Salary: $415M
2012 Salary: About the same
Stats: 65 innings, 9 strikeouts per nine innings, 6 walks per nine innings, 3.64 ERA, 3.41 FIP

Rodriguez has two pitching plans. One for righties, where he tosses his 97-99 mph fastball over the outer half of the plate and then wastes his average slider down and away, and one for lefties, where he is exclusively fastball/changeup away. You’d like to see a guy that throws 100 mph challenge hitters inside every now and then. Rodriguez will be 25 next season, and his feel for pitching and control are what will dictate whether he remains a middle reliever or becomes a high-leverage arm. I’d like to think he figures out one of those two sometime in 2012.

Sean Burnett (LHP)

2011 Salary: $1.75MM
2012 Salary: $2MM
2011 Stats: 56 innings in 69 appearances, 5 strikeouts per nine innings, 3.81 ERA, 4.51 FIP

Burnett really isn’t good enough to be the primary lefty in a bullpen, but he’s really all Washington had in 2011. A lot of his value against lefties comes from his low three-quarters arm angle. The fastball, slurve and changeup repertoire allows him to pitch to righties when he needs to and not get destroyed. The Nats could probably squeeze more value out of him as a mop-up long man. He’s got some nice things going for him, so he certainly belongs in the majors: three pitch mix, funky arm slot, used to start. But his stuff isn’t good enough for high-leverage situations. Why not have his primary role be as the guy who pitches multiple innings in blowouts? Makes more sense than having him pitch to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the eighth or ninth innings.

That leaves us with three spots to fill in the bullpen with guys who will either be added in free agency or come from within the organization. Yunesky Maya’s contract may earn him a shot. The 30-year old, junkballing Cuban is owed $4 million through 2013. It’s hard for a GM to swallow that sort of sunk cost without giving Maya every opportunity to give some kind of return on the investment. Doug Slaten and Tom Gorzelanny are potential pen arms, but they’re also potential candidates to be non-tendered. Rizzo could always bring back Todd Coffey. Sure, there are some whippersnappers down on the farm who could grab a spot, but I’ll save my thoughts on them for the team’s prospect post next week.

One interesting guy to keep an eye on is Rick Ankiel. Yes, he was above replacement as an everyday center fielder last year, mostly thanks to his defense. But a .296 On Base Percentage and a .363 Slugging Percentage? That’s rough. Why not stick him back on the mound, pare him down to fastball/slider, have him work from the first-base side of the rubber with as low an arm angle as he’s comfortable with and create a lefty specialist? He still has a grade 70 arm, put it to use.

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