When Todd Coffey begins to warm up in the bullpen, most Washington Nationals fans know they will be in for something special. As the call for Coffey to enter the game is made, he readies himself for the long trip to the mound, but he, unlike any other reliever, makes this trip differently. Once the doors open to the field, the six foot four, 240-pound reliever charges in a full sprint towards the mound as the crowd goes wild. The timer starts as he sprints to the mound, and it’s “Coffey Time.”
September 17th, 2011 may have been the last time Washington fans experienced this out of the ordinary tradition in Nationals Park as the 31 year-old fan favorite entered the game against the Florida Marlins. Last January, around this time, Coffey signed a one-year deal with the Nationals valued at $1.35 million. As the Nationals third most consistent reliever, despite unlucky injuries, he put up a 5-1 record with a 3.62 ERA and a 1.257 WHIP in 69 games during the 2011 season. He also recorded 10 holds along with 46 strikeouts while only allowing 4 home runs.
As a free agent this offseason, Coffey has generated some interest from teams looking to improve their bullpen, including the Nationals once again, but as time goes on, it is looking more likely that the Nationals will move on. MLB.com’s Bill Ladson tweeted recently that the chance Todd Coffey returns to the Nationals is less than 50 percent. With this news, fans have to wonder who will replace him. His quirks and personality aside, he was valuable to the team last season.
The first option for the Nationals will be to look within the organization. The most immediate replacement for most of Coffey’s relief work will be Henry Rodriguez. Rodriguez in his first full season with the Nationals pitched 65.2 innings with a 3.56 ERA and 70 strikeouts despite notorious control issues attributed partially to his blazing fastball that often hits triple digits on the radar gun. This issue led to 45 walks (6.2 walks per nine innings) and 14 wild pitches increasing his WHIP to 1.508 for the season. With some improvements on his control, like he showed at the end of last season, Rodriguez will become the best option for setting up Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen in the upcoming season.
Two more relievers that have a chance to shine this season in Coffey’s absense are Cole Kimball and Ryan Mattheus. The Nats also acquired reliever Ryan Perry from the Detroit Tigers in the Collin Balester trade this offseason, and he will compete for a bullpen spot as well. Kimball will most likely be the first to get a chance if Perry keeps consistent with his unimpressive career numbers. Debuting in 2011, in 12 games he accumulated an impressive 1.93 ERA, but a shoulder injury limited the time he spent in the majors. His main problem though, like Rodriguez, was a high number of walks. The number of walks he gave up actually equaled the number of strikeouts he had in 2011, leaving him with a 1.00 SO/BB, surprisingly worse than Rodriguez’s 1.58 SO/BB. He sported 7.1 BB/9, which was also higher than Rodriguez’s at 6.2. If he keeps up his production and lowers the number of walks he allows, he can become a magnificent set up man in the future if Henry Rodriguez fails to move into the role or is traded.
Mattheus is next in line to take over a relief position if all else fails. In 32 innings this season he put up a 2.81 ERA with a solid 1.281 WHIP. He has high upside, but he also walks quite a few batters. Mattheus walked 3 more players than he struck out leading to an 0.8 SO/BB, which, once again, is worse than Rodriguez’s. With a couple of control changes these players have the talent to be better than Coffey, and this year will be their big opportunity to become true major leaguers.
The other option would be to sign a well-known free agent, but this is unlikely considering the Nationals needs and in-house talent. Regardless, there are not many relievers left in the free agent pool this late in the offseason. The best choices available are Chad Qualls, Javier Lopez, and Jason Isringhausen. These players would only be marginal improvements, if at all, and would cost way more than testing the young relievers in the organization. Trading is probably not an option because GM Mike Rizzo does not want to get rid of valuable prospects for something that is a not a necessity at the moment.
Replacing Coffey’s production may not be hard for the Nationals with their depth but replacing the fanfare and excitement that Coffey brought to the team will be difficult to replicate.
I hope we bring Coffey back, but who knows. The good thing is, building a strong bullpen is one of Rizzo's greatest strengths, so not much need to worry either way. Oh, and it should be noted in your scenarios above that the EARLIEST Kimball will be back from his injury will be mid-season. Given the type of injury he suffered, I'd be surprised to see him pitch in the bigs at all in 2012.