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Sorting out bullpen roles

Dec 19, 2013, 6:00 AM EST

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One of the toughest tasks for any first-time manager is bullpen usage, and that figures to be among the more intriguing aspects of Matt Williams’ inaugural season as skipper of the Nationals.

Williams inherits a Washington bullpen loaded at the back end with three right-handers who have all enjoyed success as a closer in the last three seasons: Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard. The rest of the relief corps, though, is less-defined.

Obviously, the recently acquired Jerry Blevins will hold a key role as the group’s top left-hander, though it remains to be seen if he’ll be used as a pure matchup lefty or as someone who regularly pitches a full inning.

And, obviously, Craig Stammen will be a part of the Opening Day bullpen as well, offering a fairly unique set of skills that allows the right-hander to be used almost any way his manager desires. Stammen has shown he can be a long man and pitch three or four innings if needed. He has also shown he can pitch his way out of a jam in a setup role. And he has established rare durability for a guy who throws as many relief innings as he does.

So that takes care of five jobs, leaving a whole mess of relievers battling for two final spots on the roster.

— Ryan Mattheus is coming off a disastrous season that included a self-inflicted broken hand from punching a locker, a midseason demotion to Class AAA and a final ERA of 6.37 with a staggering 67 batters reaching base in only 35 1/3 innings. But Mattheus is only one season removed from a stellar campaign in which he posted a 2.85 ERA while putting only 76 men on base in 66 1/3 innings.

— Ross Ohlendorf was recently re-signed for $1.25 million following a surprising comeback season. Unlikely to beat out the competition for a rotation spot, the veteran right-hander most likely fits in as a long reliever, a role he handled well this year.

— Tanner Roark also enjoyed a surprising, breakthrough season, first as a durable long reliever and then as a starter, leaving the right-hander in the mix for either the No. 5 spot in the rotation or a long man’s spot in the bullpen.

— Xavier Cedeno didn’t draw many headlines, but the journeyman was the Nationals’ most-effective lefty reliever in 2013, allowing only one run in 11 appearances and retiring 17 of the 23 big-league hitters he faced. If Williams believes he needs two lefties in his pen, Cedeno would be an obvious choice to join Blevins.

— Ross Detwiler, though, could figure into this whole equation if he doesn’t open the season as the Nationals’ fifth starter. General manager Mike Rizzo has declined so far this winter to hand Detwiler a rotation spot and has dropped hints he could be used out of the bullpen. Given his lack of relief experience, you’d have to assume he could only serve as a left-handed long man, not in a role that would require pitching on back-to-back days.

Suffice it to say, the Nationals have their share of options. It’ll be up to Rizzo and Williams to figure out how to sort all that out.

    • Hiram Hover - Dec 19, 2013 at 8:11 AM

      I couldn’t take that article very seriously after it included on a list of “players who regressed in 2013” not only Danny E and ALR but JZimm.

      • unkyd59 - Dec 19, 2013 at 8:48 AM

        I have to think they meant RZim…

      • Hiram Hover - Dec 19, 2013 at 9:41 AM


        That makes sense. Of course, making that mistake makes them pretty hard to take seriously too….

  1. Hiram Hover - Dec 19, 2013 at 8:07 AM

    Great overview/preview, Mark – thanks.

    It would be helpful to know who has options, as that will likely figure in the decisions come March.

    I think Mattheus, Cedeno, and Roark have options, but I’m not sure about Ohlendorf’s contract.

    • Todd Boss - Dec 19, 2013 at 8:23 AM

      Here’s a quick options review for the entire current 40-man roster:

      Of the Nats bullpen candidates this year: Soriano can refuse assignment, Storen, Stammen, Mattheus, Roark, Ohlendorf, Cedeno all have options.

      Clippard, Blevins (I believe) and Detwiler have no options. Blevins is confusing; he was DFA’d like 4 times in 2011 so its tough to tell if he officially was optioned or if he just was assigned off the 40-man. If someone knows for sure i’d like to know.

      • Hiram Hover - Dec 19, 2013 at 9:37 AM

        Thanks. So even tho Ohlendorf signed a major league contract for 2013 (thanks for the confirmation of that, Ghost), previous options carry forward?

      • Section 222 - Dec 19, 2013 at 10:48 AM

        Wasn’t Taylor Jordan taken off the 25 man roster when he was shut down, or does the fact that he was put on the DL mean that he wasn’t optioned? When the DL goes away at the end of the year, does he have to be optioned back to the minors? Confusing stuff.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Dec 19, 2013 at 10:56 AM

        Todd, Ross Ohlendorf was in the Minors in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011,2012 and 2013. 2010 was for Rehab. I was told he was out of options.

        Your chart shows he only used 1 option year. Can you check again.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Dec 19, 2013 at 8:39 AM

      Ohlendorf has no options and is on a MLB contract this time as opposed to the Minor League deal he signed last year.

  2. nats128 - Dec 19, 2013 at 8:09 AM

    It seems like Rizzo has a trade chip or 2. Bullpen pitcher for a bench player may be.

  3. wearenationals - Dec 19, 2013 at 8:11 AM

    I’m thinking Solis is in the mix to be called up.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Dec 19, 2013 at 9:08 AM

      Probably end of April at the earliest if Matty needs him.

  4. scnatsfan - Dec 19, 2013 at 8:11 AM

    I still believe Detwiler has the #5 spot in the rotation

    • Hiram Hover - Dec 19, 2013 at 9:39 AM

      He may well get it come March, but I don’t think he’s guaranteed anything as of today. Need to see how he shows up to ST.

  5. acethehammer - Dec 19, 2013 at 8:48 AM

    Don’t forget about Christian Garcia.

      • DaveB - Dec 19, 2013 at 9:44 AM

        The link in that article shows that he hasn’t pitched since Nov. 12th … does anyone know … did have some kind of injury again?

      • acethehammer - Dec 19, 2013 at 10:34 AM

        Apparently, he is on the “Reserve” list. I didn’t know what that was, until I looked this up on the MiLB website:

        Reserve list: This is now a little-used term, primarily seen in the Mexican League where teams have a 35-man roster but only 30 players may be active per game, so the other five players are technically on the reserve list.

  6. Eugene in Oregon - Dec 19, 2013 at 9:57 AM

    Assuming MLBTR is correct, Masahiro Tanaka will not be posted this off-season. That means the high-end SP market (e.g., Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez) should shake out pretty quickly over the next couple of week. A number of teams have been waiting on Mr. Tanaka’s (or rather his team owner’s) decision, which thus should have a ripple effect on down the line. And that means that some teams lower down in the market are going to be left standing when that particular game of musical chairs ends (I’m not sure that metaphor works, but I trust you understand what I mean).

    What does that have to do with the Nats’ bullpen? The Nats have at least three pitchers mentioned above — Ross Detwiler, Tanner Roark, and Ross Ohlendorf — with some degree of experience (and success) as MLB starters. They also seem to have enough starting pitchers in the pipeline (and enough RP arms and options at the MLB level) that I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of those three SPs is wearing a different uniform prior to the opening of Spring Training. As to which one, that depends on who’s looking and what they’re offering. But Mike Rizzo has some assets there and I pretty much expect him to turn one of them into a different player in the weeks ahead.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Dec 19, 2013 at 11:41 AM

      Tanaka most likely won’t be posted and will sign a 1 year deal with his current club.

  7. Section 222 - Dec 19, 2013 at 10:09 AM

    Thanks to Todd for the link to his spreadsheet on options that each player has remaining. I’d make that an early nominee for most useful POTD. Or maybe even POTM or POTY. For those who aren’t bookmarking it now, I’m going to put his link in the Glossary of the NIDO spreadsheet (line 46), which can always be accessed at:

    • sjm308 - Dec 19, 2013 at 10:24 AM

      I, for one, think its great that a person like Todd who spends god knows how much time writting his own blog, has the time to help us out here as well. If you have not read Nationals Arm Race (listed on the right here) its crazy good and his evaluations on our pitching from the majors on through the minors is just very informative. OK, enough of a plug.

      My thoughts are that they keep Ohlendorf and Cedeno for the last two spots IF, Detwiler is the #5 starter. I hate to see both Roark and Jordan in AAA to start because of the cold weather and also the message it sends but what great depth. If Mr. Eugene is correct and we make a move I would hope its Ohlendorf that gets dealt. Not because I don’t like him but because I love the way we have handled our own players and want to see them succeed here.

    • Eugene in Oregon - Dec 19, 2013 at 12:17 PM

      Interesting; thanks. This is kinda-sorta (but not exactly) what I was trying to get at a few weeks ago when I suggested we often get too hung up over who’s 1, 2, 3, etc. I remain much more comfortable with thinking of SPs in terms of ranges (i.e., some starters are clearly 1/2s, most are 2/3/4s, and others are clearly 4/5s). Let the manager mix and match as most benefits the club (RH, LH, soft tosser, hard thrower, knuckleballer if you can get one, or whatever) without being tied to a particular label.

  8. sjm308 - Dec 19, 2013 at 11:00 AM

    Reading this post gets me thinking about how few battles there will be this spring on our team.

    The #5 starter and those last two spots in the pen are really the battles with the highest number of quality players going after just a few spots.

    I guess there is still a fight for that utility infield spot but seriously, Espinosa vs. Walters? I don’t find that much of a battle.

    The back up catcher, unless Rizzo makes another move (please Mr. Rizzo!!) is Leon vs. Solano – again, not much of a battle.

    And that leaves that 25th man on the bench. Right now I guess its Tyler Moore. Who would challenge him that is presently going to spring training?

    So, is that a good thing or do people here think there needs to be pressure to win a spot in Feb. & March?

    Go Nats!!

    • slidell2 - Dec 19, 2013 at 12:18 PM

      I think a bit of pressure can be a good thing. It can serve to inspire folks to get into “serious mode” a bit more quickly and not rest on their laurels.

      An “easing into the season” attitude is not acceptable in my eyes. This should not be an issue, but occasionally it seems to be. Game 1 is just as important in the final standings as Game 162.

  9. Theophilus T.S. - Dec 19, 2013 at 11:11 AM

    The thought that some team might give up a good bench player for either Ohlendorf or Roark — as a starter, particularly — is an opium dream. Apart from 2009 — and a few starts in 2013 — Ohlendorf has never had an ERA better than 4.00 — mostly ranging from 6:00 to 8.00+. Roark’s record consists of five starts in the majors — and a performance in the majors that by every measure exceeded what he accomplished in the minors. As starters the Nats might be able to get another team to give them a box of Chicklets. So it’s up to the Nats to capitalize, if they can, on their very friendly contracts for this season. Maybe if one of them gets and stays hot there’ll be a market for their services as the trade deadline approaches. But if they’re “hot and stay hot,” why would you want to deal either of them?

  10. NatsLady - Dec 19, 2013 at 11:12 AM

    Yesterday, on the first segment of Clubhouse Confidential, Brian Kenny analyzed the Detroit Tigers’ payroll. (I can’t locate a video, but maybe someone else can).

    Anyway, here is the baseball.reference layout

    They have $109 MM in committed salaries (11) players and BR expects $34 MM in arbitration. In total, they are projected by BR to have a payroll of over $157 MM (not counting the $30 MM they sent to Texas for Fielder).

    Here, for comparison, is BR on the Nats projected payroll (right now, about $133 MM).

    Now take a look at the Rangers, who are at $115 MM so far.

    You can see why they have room to be in on Choo or FA pitchers, whereas the Tigers are up against it. It is going to be difficult for Dombrowski to keep the Tigers’ window open, needing an extension for Scherzer and Cabrera. The Fister trade seems puzzling, but maybe it’s not the $6 MM he saved this year, if Fister keeps up his performance level, he saves another $10MM or so next year.

    To me, this is a cautionary tale. If JZ wants too much for his extension, then you let it go, and expect Giolito in 2016 or mid-2015.

  11. Section 222 - Dec 19, 2013 at 11:18 AM

    I agree Theo on Ohlendorf. Not so sure about Roark. Seems to me he’s a valuable trade piece if we need him to be. Not a proven starter, but a guy with a lot of potential. A team that’s looking for a young starter to fill a rotation might very well be interested in him. What they have to offer us is another story, but I would guess it would be more than a box of Chicklets.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Dec 19, 2013 at 11:30 AM

      I like Roark in the Stammen role which could make Stammen a better trade chip. If Solis is an option around April 30 that will further give depth and another shuffle.

      I see the 5th starter battle between TJord and Det, but you never know if Rizzo already knows who is #5 is already as TJord has options.

      TyMo’s fate rests on whether or not Rizzo adds a legit 5th outfielder or there’s a trade.

      The backup catcher I believe will be Suzuki as he was effective as a backup but not as a starter. Keeping Ramos healthy is a key for the strength and conditioning staff.

      • NatsLady - Dec 19, 2013 at 12:18 PM

        I watched Alfonso Soriano blossom when he went back to the Yanks. You have to figure he was motivated after years of playing on the Cubs.

        Suzuki hit quite well when he went back to the A’s for that brief period. So I’m wondering if it’s a matter of morale.

        When Suzuki was 50-50 with Ramos, his offense was adequate, but when Ramos got back to full strength, and it was clear he was the Nats’ future (and Davey began to favor him overwhelmingly), I have a feeling Suzuki’s morale may have fallen off a bit, and then revived when he was traded. I honestly think Davey didn’t have the knack of motivating the “lesser” players on the roster, and, other than Gio, who were Suzuki’s friends and supporters on the team?

        The question would be whether Suzuki is “satisfied” to be a backup catcher, with the lesser salary and playing time, in the shadow of a guy who has the talent and drive to be a star. I don’t mean this as a slam on Suzuki, it’s a question of can he accept that he is not the player he was a few years ago?

  12. Ghost of Steve M. - Dec 19, 2013 at 11:38 AM

    Chien Ming Wang to the Reds on a Minor League deal.

  13. Section 222 - Dec 19, 2013 at 11:51 AM

    I’m surprised you think Rizzo will go back to the Suzuki well Ghost? Isn’t there a better option out there? It’s not like got anything particularly useful last year when he was happy to unload him back to the A’s. Of course, he’ll be a lot cheaper this year, so maybe that’s the inducement.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Dec 19, 2013 at 12:48 PM

      I believe Suzuki is trying to get a starters job and starters money, and knows the Nats are a good fallback for him.. These days it’s hard to say what FMV is but I would say Suzuki is
      worth more than Wil Nieves and estimate $2 mil.

      That’s a big pay cut for Suzuki but thats reality.

  14. masterfishkeeper - Dec 19, 2013 at 12:18 PM

    Corey Brown back to the A’s, of course.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Dec 19, 2013 at 12:37 PM

      Back to where he started. Good for Corey. I wonder if the cash considerations for the trade was enough to buy a case of sunflower seeds.

      • NatsLady - Dec 19, 2013 at 12:41 PM

        Again, a morale issue. Didn’t want to go to Venezuela for winter ball, and got “sick” and came back after nine games. Hopefully the change of scenery will motivate him. He’s on the A’s 40-man.

  15. jd - Dec 19, 2013 at 12:35 PM

    I think that the best possible outcome for me would be to have Jordan win the 5th starter’s spot as I have become convinced that Detwiler’s skill set is much better suited as a long man out of the pen going around once through the order.


    I would be cautious in comparing Roark to Stammen quite yet. Stammen has a proven body of work in the majors and Roark has a less than stellar body of work in the minors. I agree that Roark may have gotten over the hump but I am far from sure about it.

    If Det wins the long man’s job and if Stammen is still here I see Ohlendorf as totally superfluous.

    I also think the Nats should convert Karns to a closer (matches his skill set). If that were to succeed the Nats would have all kinds of bullpen assets even after Soriano departs.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Dec 19, 2013 at 12:52 PM

      Roark is a controllable player and that has value. His versatility is a plus and his effectiveness out of the bullpen was a pleasant surprise. With Mattheus and CGar in the wings, I think Rizzo can take the chance with Roark.

      If you are looking for trade bait, Stammen could get a nice return as a proven set up man.

  16. Theophilus T.S. - Dec 19, 2013 at 12:39 PM

    John Buck is the only FA catcher out there who projects equal to or better than Suzuki. In comparison to the rest of the field Suzuki looks like Carlton Fisk. I think Suzuki (and Buck) will be skeptical of any promises the Nats might make regarding playing time. So, if they sign anyone at all it will be some relic like Miguel Olivo.

    • NatsLady - Dec 19, 2013 at 12:43 PM

      Exactly. As long as Ramos is healthy he’s going to play 5 or 6 games of every 7. The issue we all see is can Ramos stay healthy, and how much do you want to pay for an insurance policy?

  17. jd - Dec 19, 2013 at 2:27 PM


    No catcher should play that much. It’s just too stressful a position and it takes its toll. I think a backup catcher should play a 3rd of the games. Ramos can play more later in the year if the Nats are in a pennant race.

    I am OK with signing a relic like Olivo or Shopach. If they are at least decent receivers then that’s fine. You are not looking for a difference making bat in a backup catcher. I don’t think the Nats are concerned about Solano’s hitting as much as they don’t love his overall defensive game.





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