Oct 4, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT
The Nationals are transitioning into offseason mode, and so are we. Over these first five days, we’ll run through the five biggest storylines of the winter for this club, continuing today with the No. 4 storyline: Fixing a bench and bullpen that wasn’t nearly as strong in 2013 as it was in 2012…
The Nationals, by all accounts, don’t intend to make major changes to their lineup or rotation this winter. But they do intend to try to upgrade two areas of their roster that disappointed this season: their bench and bullpen.
“I think we’re going to look to obviously better ourselves in any way we can,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “But just looking at an overview, we’ll probably look to improve the bullpen [and] see if we can improve the bench a little bit.”
Each area was a major strength for the Nationals during their NL East-title run in 2012, and each area regressed during their frustrating 2013 campaign.
Nats reserves actually were more productive at the plate than starters were in 2012, posting a collective .283 batting average, .372 on-base percentage and .800 OPS. Rizzo brought back the entire group this year, expecting big things again, then watched as the backups hit a collective .207 with a .264 on-base percentage and .614 OPS. Washington pinch-hitters reached base at a paltry .250 clip, worst in the NL.
The problem: Young players who delivered a year earlier struggled with the role this time around. The solution: The Nationals hope to add more of a veteran presence to their bench.
There still will be several returning reserves, with Scott Hairston, Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore all under contract or team control through at least 2014. Chad Tracy, though, is a free agent and won’t be re-signed. And after trading away Kurt Suzuki in mid-August, the Nats will be searching for a new No. 2 catcher.
They’ll also be searching for a reliable left-handed reliever, something the club lacked all season despite its insistence during spring training one wasn’t necessary. After losing Sean Burnett, Michael Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny to free agency, the Nationals opened 2013 with only long reliever/spot starter Zach Duke pitching from the left side out of their bullpen.
Duke wound up getting released after posting am 8.71 ERA in only 12 appearances, and the remainder of the season was spent trying out young lefties to varying degrees of success.
“It’s been documented we probably should have went with another left-handed reliever to start the season,” Rizzo said. “We made a decision we felt comfortable with at the time.”
Fernando Abad and Ian Krol each pitched well upon first arriving in Washington, but each struggled over time. Abad put 53 men on base in only 37 2/3 innings while letting left-handed hitters bat a robust .306 against him. Krol, meanwhile, didn’t allow a run in his first 9 2/3 big-league innings, then surrendered 12 over his final 17 2/3 innings.
Xavier Cedeno did flash some promise in September, but the Nationals aren’t likely to entrust him as their only southpaw entering 2014.
There are several veteran candidates on the upcoming free agent market: Javier Lopez, Scott Downs, J.P. Howell, Manny Parra and Eric O’Flaherty (who had Tommy John surgery in May) chief among them.
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