Washington Nationals' Bullpen Strong In '10, Now Stronger?

23-year-old '09 1st Rounder Drew Storen was already on the roster and 5 saves and 55.1 IP into his career in D.C. after he sped through the Nats' system making just 41 appearances at four levels of the Nationals' organization in '09-'10 before his MLB debut last June. Henry Rodriguez, also 23, an amateur free agent signed by Oakland out of Venezuela in 2003, made his first major league appearance in late '09 and threw 27.2 innings for the A's last season after saving 11 games for the Athletics' top affiliate at Triple-A Sacramento. Rodriguez was expected to claim a late-inning role with the Nats in 2011 as team officials explained after he was acquired in the trade this winter that sent Josh Willingham to Oakland. In early January, Washington was still looking for a reliever, however, that Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell described in a 1/6/11 chat as having, "power stuff but not a lot of saves on his baseball card (which drives up the price)." Enter Todd Coffey. Sprinting. 

MLB.com's Bill Ladson wrote last week in an article entitled, "Nationals bring aboard right-hander Coffey", that the 30-year-old, 6-year vet and 1998 41st Round pick by the Cincinnati Reds, "...will compete with Drew Storen, Henry Rodriguez, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard for the closer role," or work as a set-up man at the back of the bullpen this season. Though thought to be the Reds' closer of the future at one point in his career, 8 of Coffey's 11 career saves came in a one-month stretch in 2006 when he momentarily supplanted David Weathers as the Cincy stopper when Weathers struggled with shoulder tendinitis. Described by MLB.com's Mark Sheldon as the Reds' "closer of the near future" in a 6/4/06 article entitled, "Notes: Coffey learning lessons", when he took over for Weathers, the then-25-year-old right-hander would record five of his eleven career saves over the next three weeks of that season, and one more that year and then wouldn't save another game til April 2009 when he closed out back-to-back games for Milwaukee, but the Brewers had future Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman closing games in '09. 

If Storen can't claim the closer's role he's been expected to fill since he was drafted, and Henry Rodriguez continues to walk 4+ BB/9 as he has in his first 32 major league games, Coffey, Burnett, or Clippard could take over in the ninth, though they're more likely to end up in set-up roles, along with Doug Slaten, but barring any blowups this Spring, with Rule 5 pick Elvin Ramirez, long-man Craig Stammen and Collin Balester expected to battle for a middle relief spot, the 2011 bullpen is pretty much set before Spring Training even starts.

Stammen, 26-til-March, told MASNSports.com's Byron Kerr in an interview published this weekend entitled, "Stammen confident as starter or reliever", that he learned a lot working in relief last year that will help him wherever he ends up working in 2011. Collin Balester, 24, put together a strong September working out of the bullpen, striking out 10.8 K/9 in 11 games and 13.1 innings pitched to end the season on a high note. Elvin Ramirez, 23, acquired in the Rule 5 Draft from the Mets' system, "finally figured out the strike zone," late this season as D.C. GM Mike Rizzo explained to MLB.com's Bill Ladson this past December in an article entitled, "Pitching the focus for Nats in Rule 5 Draft." Ramirez continued to impress in the Dominican Winter League where he K'd 28 (10.35 K/9) and walked just 5 (1.85 BB/9) over 24.1 IP, but he'll have to make the roster out of Spring Training and stick with the team as per the Rule 5 Draft's rules, or the Nats will have to work out a deal with NY if they want to keep him around. 

Adam Carr and Cole Kimball keep getting mentions as arms that could make the jump to the majors at some point this season, but the battle for the swing-or-long-man is expected to come down to a battle between Balester, Stammen and Ramirez. The closer's role will likely go to Storen, Rodriguez or Coffey unless the Nats go with the closer-by-committee. Can Clippard repeat the successful things he did last season and avoid the struggles he had? Has Sean Burnett finally found his role? Can Balester repeat his late-season success? Is Storen ready for the closer's role, or will he lose out and end up as a set-up man the way Coffey, another one-time closer of the future did throughout his career? Can Rodriguez throw strikes? Was Matt Capps the key to the Nats' success? The Nats' bullpen was a strength last season, did it get better this winter? 

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