Over the last two seasons, the Washington Nationals bullpen has become a place of limbo for players on their way out of the league (or those who never had the talent to be in it) to dawdle a little longer. Players like Kip Wells, Wil Ledezma, Jorge Sosa, Jesus Colome, and the ever eccentric Julian Tavarez. Last season, the bullpen seemed more like a free flowing game of musical chairs for "has-beens" and "never-will-bes" than a source of pitchers that could provide relief. The only true "reliever" that Nationals fans found last year was located in their refrigerator, ice cold. This season, look for a revamped and better bullpen, maybe better than any one the Nationals have had in D.C. thus far.
Consider this, last season the team started the season with a bullpen of Joe Beimel, Julian Tavarez, Saul Rivera, Joel Hanrahan, Mike Hinckley, Steven Shell, and Wil Ledezma. Of those, maybe only Beimel and Rivera were not question marks. Beimel had just come off a good season with the Dodgers and Rivera had been mostly solid in his time with Washington. Unfortunately, it appears Rivera was overused in the WBC and was never able to regain his form. The rest of those guys were either on their last legs in their career or mostly unproven at the major league level. None of those players, except for maybe Beimel, were in their prime. Over the course of the season, the Nats trotted out an assortment of AAAA'ers and senior citizens to mostly the same result. Some were able to survive (MacDougal, Villone), but most were just downright horrible (Colome, Kip Wells, Logan Kensing). The bullpen finished with a league worst 5.09 ERA, 4.96 BB/9, and 1.58 WHIP. Only three teams had more blown saves.
No one will deny that the bullpen was one of the Nationals biggest problem areas in 2009, which is one of the reasons why they drafted a large proportion of likely relievers (Holder, Morris, Weaver, Bronson) in last June's First Year Player Draft, including Drew Storen with the 10th overall pick. I can imagine first year GM Mike Rizzo, after what he witnessed last season, made a resolution to never again let such an abysmal set of relievers run out to the mound with a curly W on their cap. In addition to retooling the farm, Rizzo traded for Brian Bruney and Sean Burnett, signed Tyler Walker and likely closer Matt Capps, and brought in guys like Eddie Guardado, Ryan Speier, Miguel Batista, and Doug Slaten to compete for the remaining spots with younger guys like Tyler Clippard, Jason Bergmann, and any of last year's starters that do not make the rotation.
Just for comparison's sake, I will make an early prediction on what the bullpen will be this year: Matt Capps (closer), Brian Bruney, Sean Burnett, Tyler Walker, Tyler Clippard, Eddie Guardado, Miguel Batista. A bullpen comprised of those seven would have combined last season for totals of 3.86 ERA, 4.12 BB/9, and 1.38 WHIP, remarkably better than last year's group. Now obviously, this is a crude comparison that does not account for many different factors. Some of these players could play much better (or much worse) than they did last year. And most certainly, the Nationals will be forced to use at least five more pitchers in some capacity from the pen at some point this season, making depth at the position all the more important, but it is clear that the ceilings on this year's group is higher and more attainable than last year's. As the questions surrounding the bullpen slowly die off, attention will be shifted towards the other weak areas this spring, the defense and the rotation. But Nats fans can rejoice in the fact that they will not be seeing Kip Wells closing for them at any point this season.
Phil Naquin is a guest writer for The Nats Blog who will be be appearing weekly with analysis of the Washington Nationals using sabermetrics, pitch f/x tools, and scouting observations. He also runs a blog, Half Street High Rise (link:http://halfstreethighrise.blogspot.com/)