Washington Nationals Confident In Right-Handed Relievers Against Lefties, But Options Available If They Want Second Lefty In Pen

USA TODAY Sports

Washington Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo has said all winter he'd prefer to have a shutdown right-hander in his pen than a mediocre lefty, but the defending NL East Champions have set themselves up with options should they decide they need a second southpaw. J.C. Romero's name was recently added to the list...

J.C. Romero signed with St. Louis in December of 2011, but in early May 2012 the then-35-year-old left-hander was released. Cardinals' skipper Mike Matheny explained then that in place of the 14-year-veteran who posted a 10.13 ERA with two walks and five Ks in 8.0 IP in which he allowed 14 hits and nine runs, the team needed to get "some healthy arms" in the bullpen. The Cards decision to release Romero and call up right-hander Eduardo Sanchez left them with one left-hander in the bullpen, which wasn't a problem in Matheny's mind. "'It's not just somebody that throws with the left hand, it's how they pitch to left-handed hitters,'" he told reporters as quoted in an AP/ESPN article, but, "'The fact that you've got righties that can get out lefties, really, what is the difference?'"

Left-hander Sam Freeman joined the Cards' bullpen in June. When Freeman was sent down a month later, left-hander Barret Browning was called up. Browning was with the team until late August when Freeman was called back to the majors, "[providing] Matheny with a second left-handed reliever alongside Marc Rzepczynski," as MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch wrote at the time the Cardinals made the move. Meanwhile...

J.C. Romero had moved on and signed with the Baltimore Orioles. He was sent to Triple-A Norfolk where he posted a 2.51 ERA with five walks (3.14 BB/9) and 13 Ks (8.16 K/9) in 14.1 IP before opting out of the deal. Romero next signed with the Cleveland Indians, but when another opt-out date approached and it appeared he wouldn't be called up, the left-hander was dealt back to Baltimore in mid-August where he had a 6.75 ERA in five games and 4.0 IP in which he gave up seven hits and four runs, three earned before the O's too released him. Romero told Baltimore Sun writer Eduardo A. Encina at the time that he was contemplating retirement.

Romero pitched for the Gigantes de Carolina in the Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente in Puerto Rico this past winter, however, and was (1-1) with seven saves, posting a 2.35 ERA with five walks (2.93 BB/9) and 16 Ks (9.39 K/9) in 15.1 IP. Romero made five appearances with Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic too, giving up four hits, three walks and two earned runs in 4.2 IP for the runners-up who lost to the Dominican Republic in the WBC Championship game.

The experience, Romero told reporters, including the Washington Times' Amanda Comak, after signing with the Washington Nationals who had scouted the left-hander and were impressed with his work in the Classic, better prepared him for the season than Spring Training would have:

"'The intensity is higher than the regular games and pretty much it’s pretty much playoff intensity," he said. "The execution of pitches, you have the be right on point because if not it could get ugly. For me being able to go over there, it helped me a lot...'"

Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo has insisted all winter that he's comfortable that his right-hand-heavy pen was strong enough against left-handers that the Nats didn't necessarily need a second lefty along with long man Zach Duke. "'I certainly would rather have a shutdown right-handed reliever than a mediocre left-handed reliever in my bullpen even if it's left on left,'" Rizzo said in a mid-March MLB Network Radio interview. Though Nats' skipper Davey Johnson said that he would prefer to have more of a left-handed "presence" in the pen, he told reporters that the signing of Rafael Soriano this winter all-but assured that the team would go with one lefty in the pen.

"If you look at the guys that were successful up here last year," Johnson said, "and with the addition of Soriano, the addition of a right-handed, closer-type, really, and with the loss of some other left-handers that were here last year, it kind of boils down to, you know, just down to one left-hander in the pen. I think that's kind of obvious. It was obvious from the day we signed Soriano."

"When you have four guys that have closed, obviously they're pretty comfortable against left-handers, so, that's not a big issue," the Nationals' 70-year-old manager explained, and instead of worrying about lefty vs lefty matchups, he said he would just go with the best pitcher/matchup in any particular situation. One of the "four guys that have closed," has struggled this Spring though, and raised questions about whether a second left-hander might get an opportunity to make the pen.

The Nationals told J.C. Romero that he would likely start the year in the minors when they signed him. With Henry Rodriguez struggling, however, and Johnson reportedly unwilling to say clearly last night that the right-handed flamethrower will be on the Opening Day roster, the possibility of Romero making the bullpen was raised last night. In 29 games in 2011, Romero held left-handed hitters to a .231/.318/.231 line over 46 plate appearances. In 2010, at 34 years old, the reliever had a .217/.323/.277 line against lefties in 93 PAs. Romero has made just one appearances with the Nationals so far, throwing a scoreless inning on Monday night.

Romero and Fernando Abad remain in camp with the defending NL East champs. Bill Bray's working on his mechanics and remains an option should the Nationals decide they need a second lefty. The Nats may believe that their right-handers can deal with lefties, but they've set themselves up with options should they decide that they need another southpaw in the pen.

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