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Mar 24

Nationals Preview: The Bullpen

While most of the Nationals’ lineup will look familiar to fans this season, the one area of the team that has undergone major revision is the bullpen.

Gone are left-handers Tom Gorzelanny, Sean Burnett and Mike Gonzalez. The only southpaw remaining out of the pen is veteran Zach Duke, who will be the team’s primary long man. Manager Davey Johnson has defended his decision to keep only one left-hander, telling reporters that his ample corps of right-handers has had great success against left hitters, so he’s willing to take his chances when a particular matchup may go against the textbook.

The primary newcomer to the pen is Rafael Soriano, who will be the Nats new closer. Soriano was a part of previous playoff teams in Tampa Bay and New York, and is plenty used to getting the ball in the ninth inning. He saves 42 games for the Yankees last season after Mariano Rivera was lost for the season, and led the American League with 45 saves in 2010. He also saved 27 games for the Atlanta Braves in 2009, so he is used to the National League East. He has not pitched much in spring training so far, missing time recently to have an infected wisdom tooth removed. With the standard closer’s repertoire of a four-seamer and slider, he seems ready to take over the role with gusto.

The Nationals will be forgiving to Drew Storen after his disastrous performance in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, moving him to the setup spot, rather than banishing him. Such a move could help restore the confidence of the 25-year-old, who had performed admirably in the closer’s role two seasons ago and as a setup man last season after returning from preseason elbow surgery. He saved 43 games in 2011 and four more last year with a 2.37 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP. Pitching in the role where he was most comfortable last season, he should be capable of shortening games for Soriano.

Tyler Clippard  will move into the seventh inning. After Henry Rodriguez washed out of the closer’s job last season, Clippard stepped in and saved 32 games, with 84 strikeouts in 72-2/3 innings. As a pure setup man in 2011, he was superb, amassing a 1.83 ERA, a 0.83 WHIP and 104 strikeouts in 88-1/3 innings pitched. Having him available in the seventh is more of an insurance policy against a bad day by any of the Nats’ starters. Most can go 7 on any given day, so his presence is a luxury for a manager who trusts his bullpen more than most.

There’s good news and bad news about Rodriguez. For most fans, the bad news is that his will likely be part of the 2013 roster, but the good news is that he will not be allowed anywhere near the closer’s spot. Mike Rizzo and Johnson just can’t resist the right-hander’s overpowering fastball, which is often clocked in the triple digits, and a slider, that when under control, can be nearly unhittable. But when confronted with some early control problems last year, Rodriguez let it go to his head, and after giving up a game-winning grand-slam to Joey Votto, was sent to the disabled list and eventually had elbow surgery. With a heavy workload this spring, Rodriguez has been battling elbow soreness in recent days, but Johnson says it’s nothing serious. Even if he starts the year on the disabled list, look for him to be part of the bullpen before the season gets too old.

Craig Stammen figures to be the Nats’ primary right-handed long man. He came into his own last year in his fourth season with the team, going 6-1 with a 2.37 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 88-1/3 innings. Stingy with the walk (37) and the home run ball (7), he has what it takes to bail out a struggling starter during a rare off performance.

Duke, an eight-year veteran, did not get much of a chance to pitch in the majors last season, appearing in just eight games for the Nats. Once regarded as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ top pitching prospect, he has plenty of major league experience. But after being dealt to Arizona in 2011, he seemed to lose his way. He was cut there, and in Houston, before finding his way to the Nationals’ organization, and spent the year at Class-AAA Syracuse, rebuilding his mechanics. Now he is hoping to show the Nats that their investment in him has paid off.

Johnson was hoping tat Christian Garcia, who was outstanding as a rookie last season, would step into the long-relief/swing man role for the Nats, but an elbow injury has brought an abrupt end to his spring training. He’s been resting for the past two weeks and figures to start the season in extended spring training. Garcia was called up in September and yielded just two earned runs in 12-2/3 innings with 15 strikeouts and only two walks.

If the Nats decide to add more left-handers to the pen during the season, they may call on J.C. Romero, who recently signed a minor league contract, or Bill Bray, who started his career with the Nats and spent the past six seasons with Cincinnati. Both are slated to start the season in Syracuse.