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Offseason storyline No. 4: Fixing the bench, bullpen

Oct 4, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT

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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.

  1. Faraz Shaikh - Oct 4, 2013 at 8:14 AM

    if we can trade for marc rzepczynski, that would be good too. what about using one of our left-handed pitching prospects as a lefty reliever such as Ray, Purke, or Solis? I have always thought that putting together a bullpen should be easier part of a GM’s job.

    bench I have no idea. I thought we had a good one last year but none of them did well in the beginning which cost us big time. btw is anyone else seeing dejesus produce for rays?

  2. Mrsb loves the Nats - Oct 4, 2013 at 8:14 AM

    I actually think this is priority #2… Right after finding a new manager.

  3. Ghost of Steve M. - Oct 4, 2013 at 8:32 AM

    Dusty Baker was fired. Jocketty makes a bold move but Dusty never won a playoff series for the Reds. He makes many poor in-game decisions but credit given that he has a knack for starting seasons strong, just not a closer.

    • Faraz Shaikh - Oct 4, 2013 at 8:45 AM

      Copied from wiki: “Baker has never won the World Series as a manager, although he has presided over some of the biggest collapses in baseball history. In 1993, his Giants led the National League West by 9.5 games on August 7 but ended up losing the division to the Atlanta Braves and missing the postseason. The Giants lost 12-1 on the final day of the season when a win could have forced a tiebreaking game with Atlanta for the division championship. In 2002, the Giants led the World Series against the Anaheim Angels 3 games to 2. San Francisco had a 5-0 lead in the seventh inning of the sixth game but allowed the Angels to score 6 unanswered runs in the last 3 innings to win. The Angels also won Game 7 to win the championship. In 2003, Baker’s Cubs led the National League Championship Series 3 games to 1 against the Florida Marlins. The Marlins stormed back to win the final 3 games of the series, including overcoming a 3-0 Chicago lead in the eighth inning of Game 6. In 2012, Baker’s Reds led the National League Division Series 2 games to 0 against the San Francisco Giants. With the final 3 games of the series at home in Cincinnati, the Reds needed to win just once to advance to the National League Championship Series, but the Giants completed the comeback by winning games 3, 4, and 5 and went on to win the World Series.”

    • Mrsb loves the Nats - Oct 4, 2013 at 8:47 AM

      Im not that surprised by that… I had a feeling he would be on the hot seat…

    • nats128 - Oct 4, 2013 at 8:54 AM

      Thats kind of a shocker but I wouldnt want Dusty Baker as the Nats manager for the reason you stated. He folds at key times. Last year they couldnt close out the Giants in the NLDS. The Reds were up 2-0 and then lost 3 straight.

      Baker has won 3 Manager of the Year awards and I remember him how he couldnt get things straight for the Cubs after the Bartman game. Before that he had those Barry Bonds teams of the Giants and in 2002 took them to the World Series and was in position to win the World Series in Game 6 and the Giants were winning 5-0 going into the bottom of the 7th and stuck with his starter Russ Ortiz instead of going to the bullpen. Ortiz struggled in the 6th inning. Giants lose 6-5 and get beat in Game 7.

      Yes, I would say Dusty isnt a closer. His W/L is impressive however could never win the big games.

      • tcostant - Oct 4, 2013 at 9:05 AM

        I hear the Reds will interview Jim Riggleman for the job, they love what is doing for them in the minors. As for Dusty, I am not interested in him as a manager in Washington.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Oct 4, 2013 at 9:08 AM

        Dusty is 64 and would be good for a developing team that needed a Manager. Mike Rizzo may interview him but it’s a poor fit. It’s as if Dusty’s career after the Bartman game has been bad luck. The Game 6 meltdown when he managed the Giants was an epic fail and he has stacked up several lesser fails since.

        Yah those MOY trophies must give him much comfort on cold nights in October.

      • nats128 - Oct 4, 2013 at 9:10 AM

        Tcostant, good for Riggleman

      • Faraz Shaikh - Oct 4, 2013 at 9:12 AM

        woah what? that’s a bit surprising. I thoughts reds would hire someone with some more credentials.

      • nats128 - Oct 4, 2013 at 9:15 AM

        Faraz, hes not saying he hired Riggleman just that they are interviewing him.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Oct 4, 2013 at 9:22 AM

        Jocketty and Riggleman have a long relationship when he hired Jim into the Cardinals Minor League system. Riggleman was on e thought the heir apparent to LaRussa but Jim got tired of waiting and took the Nats position. Jocketty once again hired Jim when Walt had the opportunity with his Minor League team.

        This will be interesting as that unfolds. I hope Jim gets it.

      • Faraz Shaikh - Oct 4, 2013 at 10:09 AM

        nats128, I realize that but I would not interview him for the position. reds are a contender and I am not sure he is ready to manage such a club.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Oct 4, 2013 at 10:38 AM

        I’d like to see what Riggleman could do with a good team. I remember Joe Torre couldn’t do much good in his managerial career until he was handed the New York Yankees.

        Riggleman could surprise you Faraz.

      • Jw - Oct 4, 2013 at 10:54 AM

        Riggleman had a good team in 2011. What did he do? He quit on it.

      • Faraz Shaikh - Oct 4, 2013 at 11:01 AM

        Jw, 2011 nationals were a good team? really?

        GoSM, I wish riggs best. Hope he gets the job and does well.

      • Jw - Oct 4, 2013 at 11:22 AM

        2011 Nats were a team on the upswing. If Riggleman had continued that upswing it would have forced Rizzo to pick up his 2012 option. Instead, Riggleman punted. On second down.

  4. chaz11963 - Oct 4, 2013 at 9:16 AM

    The bench definitely needs enhancement. I don’t know about Hairston though. He was supposed to be this “lefty killer” but we didn’t see much out of him. I really wish they would’ve kept Dejesus. Sadly, Chad Tracy will have to go… I’m thinking we could get Michael Morse back pretty cheap given the bad year he had this season. Put him on the bench and platoon him at 1B with ALR, and give T-Mo a few starts and pinch hits. Finding a good bench bat that is a catcher will likely be next to impossible.

    I think the pen is actually not bad with Krol, Abad, and Cedeno as the lefties. Middle relief is a weak spot. Matheus is just not cutting it.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Oct 4, 2013 at 9:32 AM

      Hairston is a specialist and when you carry 4 bench players and the #2 catcher you can’t afford Hairston at his performance level in my opinion. He’s like the mistake the Nats were making prior to Rizzo taking over. Rizzo should go back to his plan of athletic 1st to 3rd guys who can contribute offensively and defensively.

      There will be plenty of 4th outfielders available this off-season.

  5. Ghost of Steve M. - Oct 4, 2013 at 10:49 AM

    Speaking of Manager candidates, if you were watching last night’s game of the Braves, Ripken criticized Heyward for missing the cutoff man on the Sac Fly and the runner on first advanced to 2nd.

    Cal is even toned and almost soft spoken but I was impressed that he immediately jumped on the mistake just as the play unfolded.

    While I think it is risky to bring in a rookie manager, I guess you could do

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Oct 4, 2013 at 10:51 AM

      Last sentence should read “I guess you could do worse.”

      • Theophilus T.S. - Oct 4, 2013 at 11:08 AM

        I’d almost worry that Ripken would be too focused on mistakes. Cal knows only “the Ripken way’” — which is fine as far it goes, a good “way” to play — but would have a tendency to stuff it down their throats.
        The Nats have a bunch of mistake prone veterans — Zimmerman, Desmond, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Storen — and mistake prone youngsters — Espinosa (no explanation necessary), Rendon, Harper — plus a know-it-all veteran (Werth). There would be rebellion before June.

        Apart from that, he wants to be Nolan Ryan not Davey Johnson.

      • Jw - Oct 4, 2013 at 11:29 AM

        Maybe not. Davey has had a better last few years than Nolan.

    • Faraz Shaikh - Oct 4, 2013 at 11:02 AM

      also Heyward did not run to first base after dropped third strike. it was close but he should have tried.

    • JamesFan - Oct 4, 2013 at 3:07 PM

      Ripken was a great individual player. He was never a leader. This team needs leadership.

  6. Theophilus T.S. - Oct 4, 2013 at 11:15 AM

    Which is not to say the Nats don’t need a gritty manager. I’ve said before my model would be Dick Williams; unfortunately he’s a little moldy and I don’t know anyone whose reputation is comparable. I just see Ripken being viewed by the players as a martinet, which would be overkill. The ability of great players to be great managers is tested every year (see, e.g., Sandberg) but the best managers turn out be guys that were good and smart players but fell short of the HOF level.

    • Sec 3, My Sofa - Oct 4, 2013 at 2:04 PM

      Theo, would you not put Kirk Gibson in that Williams category?

  7. Faraz Shaikh - Oct 4, 2013 at 11:37 AM

    Jw, 2011 Nats were on upswing for exactly 2-3 weeks at most. they had Nix and Ankiel in OF for most part, marquis, hernandez (who we all love), wang, and lannen made most of rotation.

  8. sunshinebobby - Oct 4, 2013 at 11:53 AM

    The Randy Knorr odds just got longer. Baker being available will be very tempting for Rizzo on a number of levels. And the Cal Ripken wild card remains.

    I too am pulling for Riggs in Cincinnati. He brought respectability to this franchise despite how it ended for him.

    • jd - Oct 4, 2013 at 12:21 PM

      You have to give Baker his due. He has managed winning teams throughout his career. On the other hand he’s not great at managing young pitchers so I don’t think he’s a great fit for us. I’d rather go with a younger manager than the 64 year old Baker.

      • Sec 3, My Sofa - Oct 4, 2013 at 2:08 PM

        Dusty would run this young staff right into early retirement.

    • therealjohnc - Oct 4, 2013 at 6:18 PM

      AUGH! Dusty Baker, Do. Not. Want.

      If you wonder why Dusty’s lineups look so weird, here are some Dusty quotes:

      “I think walks are overrated unless you can run… If you get a walk and put the pitcher in a stretch, that helps. But the guy who walks and can’t run, most of the time they’re clogging up the bases for somebody who can run.”

      “But you ain’t going to walk across the plate. You’re going to hit across the plate. That’s the school I come from.”

      “It’s called hitting, and it ain’t called walking. Do you ever see the top 10 walking? You see top 10 batting average. A lot of those top 10 do walk. But the name of the game is to hit.”

      Dusty doesn’t do OBP. If you thought the Nationals were impatient hackers before, just let Dusty drive the truck. Or better yet … don’t.

  9. bleacherbumerik - Oct 4, 2013 at 12:16 PM

    Riggleman clearly got the shaft here from Ratzo…the 2012 Nats may not have won 98 games with him, but I would bet that the 2013 Nats would have been a much better team having Riggleman rather than Davey. Clearly quitting in the middle of the season hasn’t hurt his stock with the Reds and the rest of baseball. They all realize how Rizzo treated him was a joke. Also, anybody that thinks Cal Ripken can’t be a good manager for this team just doesn’t understand the game of baseball. Larry Bird did quite well in the game of basketball after he retired, and the similarities between the two definitely lead me to believe that Ripken could be a great manager. A player’s successful/HOF playing career should have no bearing on whether or not he is deemed a worthy candidate for a managing job. So ridiculous.

    • jd - Oct 4, 2013 at 12:19 PM

      Ripken indeed could be a good manager and he should go manage the Orioles.

    • JamesFan - Oct 4, 2013 at 3:08 PM

      Riggleman sat on his own shaft. He was not respected in the clubhouse and he gave the boss an ultimatum. I hope the Reds hire him. That won’t solve their problem.

    • therealjohnc - Oct 4, 2013 at 6:20 PM

      Meh. I didn’t like Riggleman as a manager even before he quit on the team. He has the most amazing ability for his teams to underperform their “pythagorean” number (number wins they should get based on run differential). Through his career Riggleman’s teams were consistently worse than their pythag. Davey’s teams consistently outperformed their pythag.

      You may be part of the “Riggleman over Davey” group – but I suspect your meetings would not need a large room.

  10. veejh - Oct 4, 2013 at 2:25 PM

    Nats asked permission from the Yanks to interview Joe Girardi.

  11. jd - Oct 4, 2013 at 2:37 PM

    That I like. I think Girardi will find the Nats job very attractive given the talent level and the relative youth of most of the key players.

    Let the games begin.

  12. Ghost of Steve M. - Oct 4, 2013 at 2:46 PM

    Really on Girardi? I thought he would stay with the Yankees or go to Chicago.

  13. JamesFan - Oct 4, 2013 at 3:14 PM

    The biggest need on the team is a quality backup for Ramos. Zuk was just what the Nats needed but is probably too expensive to bring back. Ramos is too fragile to leave the backup role to Solana.

    I’m fine with Lombo, Moore and Hariston. Fill in from there.

    I would like to see major upgrades in the pen. The only reliever who I would guarantee a job to is Soriano. Everyone else is expendable. I just do not think the pen is at the quality needed to back up the quality of starting pitching. A tough lefty is a must, maybe two. Also need a fire throwing righty.

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