The Washington Nationals have dealt with nearly endless injuries over the course of this still fairly new season as I wrote in my MASNSports.com guest post today, but perhaps the most glaring at the moment is the lack of a true closer. Without Drew Storen, the Nats thought they had something in Henry Rodriguez. However, he’s loaded the bases in his last two save attempts, one of which ended in a Joey Votto walk-off grand slam. While manager Davey Johnson continues to reiterate that Rodriguez will be the team’s closer, I argue it’s time to look for a new stop gap until Drew Storen comes back, and Will talked about why a bit earlier today.
Here are the team’s best options as I see them:
Sean Burnett - No, the weird throwing lefty doesn’t have an overpowering fastball; his average fastball velocity this season is below 90 mph. However, he still has numbers that indicate he could be on his way to a 2010-like season, and maybe even better. He has a 10.80 K/9 ratio, which matches Gio Gonzalez for second-best on the team. He has an insane 0.90 ERA and an equally impressive 1.16 FIP, both team-bests. What’s more, he’s put up a .320 BABIP, which means he is actually a bit unlucky with balls-in-play. I know people like to see closers with overpowering stuff, but Burnett has the right stats and doesn’t crack under pressure.
Tyler Clippard - Clippard has had a quietly impressive year in the setup role after a rocky start and some shoulder tightness at the start of the season. He is probably the more prototypical closer with a fastball velocity up around 93 mph and a devastating change up. The problem is the Nats love him in the eighth inning role, and with good reason. It’s about as hard to find someone for that job as it is for the ninth inning, so the team seems reluctant to let him close. If he does, though, he certainly has the makeup and the stuff to do it; he fans 10.13 batters per nine innings and is tied with Craig Stammen for the best bullpen WAR (0.5) even after a bad start.
Craig Stammen - I love Craig Stammen, and I always have, just not as a starter. Since Stammen was moved to the bullpen last last season, he’s been unbelievably dominating: like a stupid high 334 ERA+, 0.798 WHIP, and a 4.38 strikeout to walk ratio dominating. Anything that can get Stammen more involved with this team in any way is just fine with me, and he just might be showing the stuff to be a closer. However, he does have something that is equally valuable, and that’s stamina to be a long-reliever. I’m not sure I want Tom Gorzelanny as the team’s only long-relief guy, do you?
Chien-Ming Wang - This is probably a pipe dream, but hear me out. It’s still hard to argue with removing anyone from the Nats starting rotation to make room for Wang, and the team will have to make the decision about what do with him in less than two weeks. If they decide to throw him in the bullpen, he could be a long reliever, allowing Stammen to work in the late innings. That’s what I prefer. But what if they put his fragile shoulder in a spot where he’s throwing just a few innings a week like in a closer role, even though they are typically high-stress innings. Again, he doesn’t usually pump it up on the gun, but his sinker is so devastating when good, it may not matter. I’m not saying it’s the best option, but it could open up doors for the Nats and still allow them to have depth in case an injury happens in the rotation.
If Johnson ever does decide to look into replacing Henry, these are likely your competitors. It might not be a dedicated guy, although Davey is a “defined roles” type of guy. Just look at the lineup card over the last week: almost no changes except for injuries. In the broadcast on Monday, FP said about Rodriguez that it’s important to show confidence in your guy, but you also have 24 other guys to worry about. It’s time to show confidence in some of the other guys, because when a team is going this well, you don’t want to worry about losing other players to cater to just one.
With the stretch of tough series the Nats have coming up, they should really consider bringing Wang back sooner rather than later in order to free up Stammen to be either the 8th inning guy or the closer. Let Detwiler be the other long reliever for the time being. It would be a tough demotion for Ross, but the team needs to have the best available staff given that it plays nothing but AL & NL East opponents for more than a month after the Pittsburgh series.
To me it has to be Clippard. He's been dominant for years. Stammen and Matthues have stepped up beautifully in the 7th/8th inning roles, so why not push Clippard to the closer until Storen returns?