The Washington Nationals have gotten some impressive returns from pitchers who seemed to reach the end of the road with other organizations, maybe that's why they've seemed so willing to let relievers walk this winter for bigger deals from other teams.
In discussing the pending decisions for Washington's postseason roster, Nationals' skipper Davey Johnson told reporters in early October that there were two pitchers among the Nats' September call-ups who had really impressed over the final few weeks of the regular season. "The two guys that really jumped out at me are [Zack] Duke and [Christian] Garcia," Johnson said. Duke signed a minor league deal with Washington after he was released by the Houston Astros in late March of 2012. Garcia was signed as a minor league free agent in July of 2011 after six seasons in the New York Yankees' system and three surgical procedures (including Tommy John twice) on his right elbow.
Garcia's made a big splash in 2012. The hard-throwing 27-year-old right-hander started the year at Double-A Harrisburg, dominated at Triple-A Syracuse and debuted in the majors in September with 12.2 IP in which he walked two (1.42 BB/9) and K'd 15 (10.66 K/9). Duke, 29, was (15-5) with a 3.51 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 2.14 BB/9 and 4.98 K/9 in 26 games and 164.1 IP at Triple-A Syracuse before he was called to the nation's capital. In September in D.C., the veteran lefty worked out of the pen and had a 1.32 ERA, 2.51 FIP, 2.63 BB/9 and 6.59 K/9 over 13.2 IP.
Even with long man Tom Gorzelanny on the roster, Davey Johnson said he would consider keeping Duke around for the NLDS with the St. Louis Cardinals. "Yeah, I would," the manager told the reporter who asked, "although I've got [Mike] Gonzalez and [Sean] Burnett." Though he was impressed with Duke, the left-hander was left off the postseason roster. Garcia made the cut. The right-hander walked two and K'd two in his playoff debut in Game 2 in St. Louis. In Game 3, Garcia again walked two batters, gave up two hits and allowed one run while collecting two Ks in an inning of work. Though he worked out of the pen all year and then in D.C. when he was called up, the Nationals' skipper talked at the end of the season about possibly turning Garcia back into a starter in 2013.
Garcia was (1-0) with seven saves, a 1.80 ERA, 1.30 FIP, six walks (2.70 K/9) and 28 Ks (12.60 K/9) in 18 games and 20.0 IP at Double-A before moving up to Nats' Triple-A affiliate, where the right-hander had a 0.56 ERA, 1.87 FIP, 11 walks (3.06 BB/9), 38 Ks (10.58 K/9) and 14 saves before he was called up to Washington. "He's got three pitches like a starter would have," Johnson said, "Good changeup, good curve ball, good hard fastball. So he would be a candidate, for me, to start next year. And that's one area where our depth is a little less." Garcia's talents, in the manager's mind, were being wasted if he stayed in a relief role.
"You can always go from starting and having that regular work which is also really good for building up arm endurance," Johnson explained, "and then go from that into a relief role. So Garcia might end up in the pen again if the Nationals need him. The right-hander might return to the Nationals' top affiliate if he's used as a starter, since barring any injuries to the Nats' top five arms, the rotation appears set before a pitch has been thrown.
The Nationals' plans for Duke have become clear as the winter has progressed. Though Washington said they had interest in bringing back Gorzelanny, Mike Gonzalez and Sean Burnett, the two left-handers they signed first this winter were Duke and veteran reliever Bill Bray. Though D.C. GM Mike Rizzo originally said Duke would get a chance to compete for a starting role, he added in an article by MLB.com's Bill Ladson that if he didn't make the rotation, "'[Duke] will [be the long reliever manager] Davey [Johnson] likes in the bullpen.'" With Burnett, Gorzelanny and then Gonzalez all leaving the Nationals this winter, it's apparent that in 2013, the role will likely be Duke's to lose.
Bray's another pitcher the Nationals are taking a chance on like they did with both Garcia and Duke. The veteran left-hander, a Montreal Expos' 1st Round pick in '04 who was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds in a nine-player deal in 2006, struggled with groin and lumbar issues which limited him to just 8.2 IP in the majors in 2012. In 2011, Bray had a 2.98 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 17 walks (3.17 BB/9) and 44 Ks (8.19 K/9) over 79 games and 48.1 IP. In 87.1 career IP against left-handed hitters, the six-year MLB veteran has a .213/.312/.331 line with 45 walks (4.62 BB/9) and 85 Ks (8.62 K/9) against lefties. With success stories like they have in Duke and Garcia, it makes sense that the Nationals might believe in their ability to identify and rehabilitate relievers. Bray might just end up being the Nats' late-inning lefty in 2013.
Davey Johnson and Mike Rizzo have been open about wanting another lefty in the pen, though they've both said they're comfortable with the way their right-handers handle lefties. The Nationals' success in finding and fixing relievers over the last few years might explain why they've allowed lefty after lefty to leave for big dollars elsewhere this winter. But it shouldn't surprise anyone if the Nats' GM has something else in mind either. It's still six weeks until pitchers and catchers even report...