The 2012 Washington Nationals came within one strike of a trip to the NLCS. No one who followed the team closely and watched the painful conclusion of Game 5 of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals likes to talk about it. When the Nats signed free agent closer Rafael Soriano to a 2-year/$28M deal on January 17th last winter, GM Mike Rizzo was immediately asked if the signing was a reaction to '09 1st Round pick Drew Storen's performance in the ninth inning of the series finale with the Cards the previous October.
"Drew Storen is a closer," the Nats' general manager assured reporters gathered in D.C. for Soriano's introductory press conference at Nationals Park three days after the signing was announced. "[Storen's] going to be a closer. He's got closer stuff. He's got a closer's mentality. And by no means [was] the signing of Rafael Soriano based on one inning and one game at the end of the season. [Storen] is a young closer that was thrust into the closer's role as a very young man and a very young major leaguer. We feel that we benefit having [Soriano] on the club not only by pitching the ninth inning, but also by mentoring a good young potential closer in Drew Storen."
Storen struggled in the new role, however, and when he was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse in late July, the 26-year-old right-hander left with a 5.95 ERA, a 4.16 FIP, seven home runs (1.49 HR/9) and 13 walks (2.76 BB/9) allowed and 43 Ks (9.14 K/9) recorded in 47 appearances and 42 1/3 IP. Tyler Clippard, in a memorably honest and raw assessment of the situation following Storen's departure, told reporters that in spite of public assurances, it was hard to avoid taking the signing of Soriano personally.
"'You basically send a guy a message this offseason, for having one bad game, that he's not the guy for the job,'" Clippard told reporters. "'He's only human. I mean, it's going to get to anybody. Eight months later, you get to a point where he’s struggling, and you turn the page on him and you send him down. It’s not necessarily turning the page on him, because I think he needs to regroup and get out of this environment and take a deep breath and re-gather himself. I just think it’s been handled very poorly.'"
Now-former manager Davey Johnson said it was a matter of Storen struggling to adjust to his new role. "I think a lot of that -- and like I was telling you before... the role of closing, you know when you're going in," Johnson told reporters. "When you're setting up, I had to explain it to him, you know, 'Right-handers, you get the right-handers. [Clippard] gets the left-handers in the set-up role.' I used him a lot because he wasn't as sharp as he was when he was closing, that he could work it out and I think I've used him more than anybody on the ballclub. More appearances anyway."
"I always try to put guys in situations that they can be successful," Johnson said. "And by and large, the opportunities that he had, he should have been more successful. I was able to pick and choose parts of the lineup that he should have been more successful."
The Nats' skipper seemed to agree with Rizzo's assessment that the way the 2012 season ended and the 2013 season began were Storen's first taste of real adversity. "He's never had failures," Johnson explained, "never had to deal with failure. And this is kind of a sharp lesson up here dealing with failure."
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In 21 appearances after returning from the Nationals' top affiliate in mid-August, Storen posted a 1.40 ERA with six walks (2.79 BB/9) and 15 Ks (6.98 K/9) in 19 1/3 IP over which he held opposing hitters to a .200/.263/.214 line. As Storen explained, in a conversation with the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore, he'd reworked his delivery while in the minors and returned with a new quicker leg kick, different arm slot he found more consistently and naturally and a renewed confidence in his fastball as well as a bit of perspective on the difference between success and disaster at the major league level.
"'There’s a fine line between being awful and really good,'" Storen told the WaPost's reporter. "'That’s one of the main things that I learned.'"
The first year of Rafael Soriano's two-year deal with the Nationals ended with the 33-year-old closer, who turned 34 last month, up to 43 saves, with a 3.11 ERA, a 3.65 FIP, 17 walks (2.30 BB/9) and 51 Ks (6.89 K/9) in 66 2/3 IP over which he gave up seven home runs (0.95 HR/9) and was worth +0.5 fWAR. Soriano's manager for his first season in the nation's capital said he wasn't at his best. "He hasn't had as good a year as he's certainly capable of," Johnson told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Sports Junkies in September. "He hasn't pitched to his abilities. I'd say he's down too. He saved a lot of games. He's had miscues in some. The defense has helped him."
His fastball velocity fell. He had a career-high in blown saves (with six) and saw his K% fall from from 24.7% in 2012 to 18.4% while opponents' batting average (.217 in 2012 to .250) and H/9 (7.3 in 2012 to 8.8) both rose, with the H/9 up for the fourth straight season from 5.2 in 2010, and 7.6 H/9 in 2011.
Soriano told the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore that his issues were at least in part due to the infrequent appearances.
"'I had like three or four times I don’t pitch for like a week,'" he explained. "'It’s not easy, you know? Pitching every two or three days, for me, I feel more better like that.'" The veteran reliever too finished strong, with 12 saves in 12 opportunities after August 20th, and a 1.17 ERA, four walks (2.35 BB/9) and 13 Ks (7.63 K/9) in his final 15 1/3 IP.
With all the drama out of the way, Storen and Soriano finishing strong, Tyler Clippard his dominant self and a more balanced mix of left and right-handed arms, will the Nationals in 2014 have the shutdown bullpen Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo thought he'd assembled for the defense of the NL East crown last winter?
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