Is the Washington Nationals' Bullpen Still One Lefty Short? Are Zach Duke And Bill Bray Enough?

Brad Mills-US PRESSWIRE

The Washington Nationals have been linked to left-handed reliever J.P. Howell all winter, but they still haven't added the late-inning lefty they are believed to be after. They did, however, sign Zach Duke to fill Tom Gorzelanny's role as the long man in the pen, and they added Bill Bray, whose health limited him to just 8.2 IP in 2012 in Cincinnati.

The Washington Nationals are showing a lot of faith in veteran lefty Zach Duke. The 29-year-old '01 Pirates' 20th Round pick signed with the Nats last March, joining his third major league team after a 2011 season with the Arizona D-Backs in which he had a 4.93 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 19 walks (2.23 BB/9) and 32 Ks (3.76 K/9) in 21 games, nine starts and 76.2 IP. In his eighth major league season, Duke made 26 starts at Triple-A Syracuse in the Nationals' system in 2012, leading the International League in wins (15-5) and posting a 3.51 ERA with a 4.09 FIP in 164.1 IP over which he walked 39 (2.14 BB/9) and K'd 91 (4.98 K/9).

In eight games and 13.2 IP with Washington after he was called up in September, Duke put up a 1.32 ERA and a 2.51 FIP. Of his 1054.2 career innings pitched, only 42.1 IP have come in a relief role.

In those 42.1 innings as a major league reliever, Duke has a 2.98 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 12 walks (2.55 BB/9) and 16 Ks (3.40 K/9) in an admittedly small sample size. Asked about the role the left-hander would play in 2013 after he signed on to return to D.C. this winter, Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo told reporters, including MLB.com's Bill Ladson, (before Washington added Dan Haren to the rotation) that Duke would, "... be in the mix for a fifth starting job or at least starting depth. If not, he will [be the long reliever manager] Davey [Johnson] likes in the bullpen."

Rizzo said at the time that he would like to add another left-hander since the Nationals were expected to and have since lost not only long-man Tom Gorzelanny, but also late-inning lefty Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez to free agency this winter. The Nationals added Bill Bray on a minor league deal, signing the former Montreal Expos' draft pick after a 2012 season in Cincinnati in which he struggled with groin and lumbar issues which limited him to just 8.2 innings of work in the majors. In 2011, Bray posted a 2.98 ERA, a 3.19 FIP, 17 walks (3.17 BB/9) and 44 Ks (8.19 K/9) in 79 games and 48.1 IP. That season, the Reds' reliever held left-handers to a .176/.255/.292 line and over the course of his six major league seasons, Bray has a .213/.312/.331 line with 45 walks (4.62 BB/9) and 84 Ks (8.62 K/9) in 87.2 IP against lefties.

If Bray's not the answer, and they can't find the lefty they're still believed to be after, the General Manager told the Washington Post's James Wagner that he was confident that the right-handed relievers they have can get lefties out. Mr. Wagner's colleague at the Washington Post, Thomas Boswell, told readers in a chat earlier this week that he thought the Nationals might be, "... a litte too confident that the 'splits' of their RHed relievers say that they get LHed hitters out well." The WaPost's reporter suggests in the chat that the Nationals might want to consider the historical record in making their decision on their bullpen needs:

"I prefer to go with the wisdom of the last 100+ years that it's a real good idea to have a tough late-inning lefty who can [dominate] key sluggers on other teams, not just 'have good splits.'"

J.P. Howell, the left-hander mentioned most-often this winter as Washington's target, has a .238/.323/.351 line against left-handed hitters in 129.2 innings pitched in his career. Last year, in his sixth season with the Tampa Bay Rays, Howell held lefties to a .198/.306/.306 line with 13 walks (4.81 BB/9) and 20 Ks (7.40 K/9) in 24.1 IP.

"The Nats BETTER add Howell or trade for a quality LHer, imo," the Washington Post's Mr. Boswell wrote in Monday's chat. To borrow a non-word from the Nationals' GM, Howell is the only "impactful" left-hander left on the market this winter. Is the Adam LaRoche decision delaying the Nationals' decision on their bullpen needs? Would the Nationals rather trade for a young left-hander in a potential deal if they have to move Michael Morse rather than sign a soon-to-turn-30-year-old lefty to a free agent deal? Davey Johnson joked earlier this winter that he wanted another left-handed option in the bullpen so that he actually has some decisions to make. The Nationals have to decide if there's someone out there who is a better option than what they already have available? It's a new year, but the same two questions about the Nats' roster that have been unanswered all winter remain so as 2013 gets underway...

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