Then-Washington Nationals' skipper Jim Riggleman said everyone wanted '09 1st Round pick Drew Storen to claim the closer's role, but if necessary, the manager said last Spring, the Nats could use Sean Burnett as a closer if Storen struggled as he grew into the job. The Nationals had acquired flame throwing reliever Henry Rodriguez the previous December with D.C. GM Mike Rizzo telling Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore at the time (in an article entitled, "Josh Willingham traded by Washington Nationals to Oakland Athletics for Henry Rodriguez and Corey Brown") that the Nats, "'... foresee [Rodriguez] down the road as a guy who has the possibility to pitch in the back end of a game, either set up [Drew] Storen in the eighth inning or pitch in the ninth inning." Storen then struggled through a rough Spring Training in which he allowed 24 hits and 16 runs, 14 earned in 11 Grapefruit League outings and 11.1 IP over which he K'd 14 and walked two batters.
As Storen explained in response to a caller's question yesterday in an interview on the MLB Network Radio show First Pitch with Jim Memolo and Jeff Nelson, his struggles last Spring helped him regain his focus. "I think in the end, that was one of the best things that ever happened to me," the 24-year-old Brownsburg, Indiana-born right-hander said. He took the whole Spring as a learning experience and it's informed how he'll approach Spring Training this time around. "I learned a lot about what it takes to be successful at the big league level and what I need to do to be successful," Storen said, and this Spring, "I'm going to do the same thing. I'm going to go in and I'm going to try some different things and see what works and see what doesn't."
"Last year," Storen admitted about his approach to Spring Training, "I kind of went in saying, 'I need to dominate. I need to prove to them...' and I almost tried too hard and I think that's kind of where I got myself into trouble. And then at the end I kind of just cleared my mind, I just cleared it out and said look, 'Just go out and attack guys,' and I watched a ton of video and I talked to a lot of guys and just really kind of was searching. And in the end, I just kind of took a step back and went back to what made me successful."
What made Storen successful eventually resulted in a 43-save sophomore season in which the former Stanford Cardinal closer had a 2.75 ERA, 3.32 FIP, 8.84 K/9 and 2.39 BB/9 in 73 games and 75.1 IP. After a successful season in which he firmly established himself as the Nats' closer, the right-hander won't change much about his approach in what will be his third Spring in Florida with the big league club.
"In the beginning of Spring Training," Storen explained, "that's when you start working on stuff, but like I said, towards the end is when you start making that transition to saying, 'O.K., you've got to go back to your old self,' then maybe you have these new tools in the bag that you can use, but I still can't veer away from what made me successful last year, cause there's no point in reinventing the wheel."
As for what he's been working on this winter, and what his goals are this Spring, Storen told the MLB Network Radio hosts he was, "... just building off what I did last year. Last year I really worked on my command and really trying to manipulate the baseball a little bit more and concentrate on movement and letting the velocity kind of take care of itself. That's something I've been working on. I've been working a lot with my changeup. I started using my changeup late in the year and I think that kind of added a dimension to my repertoire."
The Nationals have added Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez to the rotation and they brought former Phillies' closer Brad Lidge in to bolster what was already a strong bullpen. The Nats' closer likes what he's seen Washington doing this winter. "It's tough not to be excited after the big additions," Storen said, "Obviously with Brad Lidge coming in too, that's something for me that's going to be pretty exciting, to pick his brain. I was already happy with our bullpen and pitching staff, but adding those guys, it's going to be a lot of fun."
Lidge, in particular, is someone who Storen's looking forward to working with since he looked up to him before becoming a major leaguer himself, and the Nats' closer says the veteran reliever knows he's a fan. "I remember when I met him when we played against him in my first year," Storen said, "And I mentioned to one of the writers how cool I thought it was because he was someone I always looked up to just obviously not only as a closer, but just how he's always handled his business, so I've kind of sold myself out in that realm already, but he'll definitely be a guy that I ask a lot of questions to, and I look forward to learning a lot about, because he's kind of done it all and I really admire the way that he's had his career go."
"Having Brad Lidge down there with me," Storen said, looking forward to this Spring, "is going to be a big help and probably help me with my approach and how to approach hitters, so it's going to be a great opportunity for me to try some things, but at the end [of Spring Training] is when you really start to hunker down and really get after it a bit."
The Nationals added pitching, but failed to land the big bat they felt they needed. They were rumored to have been interested in and later admitted to having pursued Prince Fielder until it no longer made sense for them. The Nats' closer, (like their GM), thinks the offense might improve with the players they already have on the roster producing what was expected last year. "Even though we really didn't add much hitting," Storen said, "Obviously with the Prince Fielder talk, that's whatever, I think having Adam LaRoche come back, I think is going to be huge for us. Just with the way we were hitting better there at the end of the year and I think guys getting settled in... I don't know, I think it's going to be a lot different this year and like you said, with our pitching staff, hopefully we won't need to score that many runs anyways."
Storen's also excited about playing for the Nationals' manager again this year. "Davey's great," Storen said when asked about the 68-year-old baseball lifer who played in the majors for 13 years and will manage for the 16th year this season in D.C., "You can tell that he's been around obviously as a player and as a manager so it's tough to knock his resume, but he's a guy that really understands where we're at as players, and I think he's a guy that puts a lot of trust in us and you can tell that he's not a guy that's... you know, if you go out and struggle, he's still on your side and I think that's something that the guys really appreciate and he does a great job handling the bullpen too, so there's really no complaints from me and I'm excited to have him back this year."
No National gets through an interview without being asked about Bryce Harper these days, and Storen was no exception. "Bryce is obviously very talented," Storen said when asked if Harper could make the Opening Day roster, "And he plays the game really hard which I think is something you've got to give him a lot of credit for, but I honestly haven't seen him play enough to sit there and say, hey this is where he should be, but I think Spring Training will be a tell-tale sign of where he should be."
"But, I think one thing that's important, that I think Mike Rizzo does such a great job with doing... what he did with [Stephen] Strasburg," Storen continued, "is just taking the time to appreciate the developmental process. And I think that's something he's going to do with Bryce, and not rush him to the big leagues knowing that it's important to see the big picture and you don't want to cut corners with that developmental process and if he ends up getting worse out of it then it's not going to do you any good, so I think they'll do the right thing and if he's ready in Spring Training, which obviously he has the talent and the ability to be, then he'll be there and if not he'll be there soon enough."