Washington Nationals' Replacement Closers: Can Henry Rodriguez Or Brad Lidge Save Games Until Drew Storen Is Ready?

PHILADELPHIA - SEPTEMBER 21: Relief pitcher Henry Rodriguez #63 of the Washington Nationals throws a pitch during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on September 21, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Nationals won 7-5. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

The Oakland A's had converted Henry Rodriguez to the bullpen full-time by 2009 when he made his MLB debut six years and three minor league seasons after signing as amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2003. In 2010, a then-23-year-old Rodriguez had 11 saves, a 1.69 ERA, 2.17 FIP, nine walks (3.80 BB/9) and 31 K's (13.08 K/9) in 20 games and 21.1 IP at Triple-A Sacramento and a 4.55 ERA, 3.15 FIP, 13 walks (4.23 BB/9) and 33 K's (10.74 K/9) in 29 games and 27.2 IP with the A's. Oakland's GM Billy Beane admitted when he traded the 6'0'' right-hander to the Nats in the winter of 2010 that Washington was getting something special, as he told MLB.com's Greg Johns at the time, in an article entitled, "A's acquire Willingham from Nationals."

"'There's no getting around the fact he's a unique talent with a 100-mph fastball,'" Oakland's GM explained to the MLB writer, but the general manager felt he couldn't pass up a chance to acquire a then-31-year-old Josh Willingham in a deal for Rodriguez and outfielder Corey Brown, even though he said, "... we're prepared for [Rodriguez] to go on and have an outstanding career." Nats' GM Mike Rizzo told reporters in Washington last winter that he wasn't worried about the fact that Rodriguez, who'd been up and down in the A's organization, no longer had any options because he said they fully expected him to make the roster out of Spring Training and stick in the Nats' bullpen. "He's been scouted extensively by us," Rizzo said, "We think that he's a power arm that's going to fit in somewhere in the middle of the bullpen."

Rizzo told the Washington Post's 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 he could, "'... 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.'" All 32 appearances Rodriguez made in the majors for the A's were in relief, and though he'd saved four games in '09 and 11 in 2010 for Oakland's Triple-A affiliate in Sacramento, he didn't record a major league save until September 21, 2011 when he was called upon to save a game against the Phillies a day after Drew Storen had locked down both ends of a day/night double-header sweep in Philadelphia.

Rodriguez retired the three Phillies' batters he faced in order on 16 pitches to claim his first major league save in a 7-5 Nats' win and then five days later earned his second S with a 12-pitch inning in which he allowed one hit before a groundout and a 4-6-3 DP ended a 6-4 win over the Fish. The day before Rodriguez had overpowered the Atlanta Braves' batters, striking out the side on 11-pitches in an inning that saw the then-24-year-old (who did still lead the league in wild pitches last year while walking 6.17 BB/9) finally looking like he'd figured things out on the mound.

The now-25-year-old Rodriguez has continued to impress this Spring, giving up just two hits and two walks while striking out six and holding opponents to a .095 BAA in 7 games and 7.0 IP. When Nats' skipper Davey Johnson today talked about possible alternatives should closer Drew Storen (bicep/tricep issues) not be ready to start the season, Rodriguez was one of two pitchers mentioned along with 35-year-old former Astros and Phillies' closer Brad Lidge. "'Those are the only two I'm willing to throw out there at this time,'" Johnson was quoted stating in NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman's article this afternoon entitled, "Who closes if Storen isn't ready?"

Lidge is a 10-year veteran with 223 saves on his resume who's coming off an injury-shortened season in which he saved just one game in 25 appearances and 19.1 IP. Three years removed from his "perfect season" as the Phillies' closer on the 2008 World Series-winning team, and coming off a 2011 campaign which started late but saw Lidge post a 1.40 ERA and a 2.82 FIP with 13 walks (6.05 BB/9) and 23 K's (10.71 K/9), the right-hander signed a 1-year/$1M dollar deal with Washington after failing to find a team willing to give him a job as a closer. Lidge has K'd seven in 5.0 IP this Spring, giving up four hits and two runs, one earned without allowing a walk.

While Davey Johnson wasn't completely writing off the possibility of Storen being ready to go by Opening Day, he did tell reporters, as quoted by NatsInsider's Mr. Zuckerman, "'I'm going to prepare my staff for the opener with the possibility that Storen might not be my closer because of being cautious and making sure he's going to be 100 percent right.'" A veteran who's won a World Series who's working with decreased velocity but a nasty slider and a 24-year-old flame thrower who routinely hits triple-digits while still struggling with his control. Should Storen not be ready to start the season, at least the Nationals have options.

If only the Nats had such capable Plan B's at all of their positions of need as the start of the 2012 campaign approaches. Chien-Ming Wang's likely to start the season late after suffering a hamstring injury, but the Nationals could use John Lannan or even Ross Detwiler to fill in until Wang's ready to begin the season. That's not much of a problem. With Chris Marrero, who was injured playing Winter League ball, Adam LaRoche, who is hobbled by a bruised foot that's so far limited his playing time this Spring as he recovers from shoulder surgery, and Michael Morse (lat strain), who took over for LaRoche at first last season after LaRoche was injured, all battling injuries, the Nationals could open the season with Mark DeRosa or Chad Tracy, who played the 2011 season in Japan, at first base.

No Morse in left and Bryce Harper in Triple-A means Roger Bernadina, Jason Michaels, Brett Carroll, Mark DeRosa(?) and Rick Ankiel battling it out or sharing time in the outfield along with Steve Lombardozzi who's in the process of adding left field and the "super" to the "utility role" he was expected to play this season if he made the team out of Spring Training. What if Ryan Zimmerman misses significant time with injury? Ian Desmond or Danny Espinosa... or both? The Nats have to hope the injuries they're dealing with this Spring aren't a sign of what lies ahead this season. At least the back end of the bullpen's solid. Provided Lidge can stay healthy and Rodriguez can continue to improve his control...

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