Nationals' Bullpen Battle: Two Lefties? Luis Ayala? Christian Garcia? Tough Choices...

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Do the Washington Nationals want to keep two left-handers in the bullpen after making the mistake of thinking they only needed one last spring? So: Xavier Cedeno or Mike Gonzalez? Do they go with one of the right-handers in camp like Christian Garcia or Ryan Mattheus?

Barring any injuries, setbacks or surprises, most of the spots in the Washington Nationals' bullpen appear set. Rafael Soriano, closer. Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, set-up men. Jerry Blevins, the left-hander. Craig Stammen, the long-man... After that?

"Every manager would love to have two lefties. We'll have to see how it works in Spring Training. What we can accomplish." - Matt Williams on wanting two lefties in his bullpen

Is Tanner Roark the one? Ross Ohlendorf (who is dealing with injuries this spring)? Newly-signed lefty Mike Gonzalez or possibly Xavier Cedeno? Luis Ayala? Manny Delcarmen? Christian Garcia? Clay Hensley? Ryan Mattheus? It's not necessarily going to be one left and one right-hander out of that mix. While new Nats' skipper Matt Williams has been clear about his preference for two left-handers, he's also explained that it is a numbers game.

"I think you have to say, like last year, [GM] Mike [Rizzo] said, 'Yeah, well we'd love to have a lefty, but our options may be not as good as all the righties at that point,'" Williams explained this spring.

"Every manager would love to have two lefties," he said. "We'll have to see how it works in Spring Training. What we can accomplish."

NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman, in a mid-spring look at how the Opening Day roster is shaping up, gave Tanner Roark and ground ball machine Luis Ayala the final spots in the bullpen. While Ayala might be a bit of surprise, as Zuckerman wrote, "Williams does seem to like Ayala, a veteran who induces a ton of groundballs and who could prove valuable as a guy summoned from the pen to escape a tight jam."

"He's certainly one of the guys we're considering and he pitched well. He's got experience closing games, seventh, eighth inning, so that's good." - Matt Williams on veteran reliever Luis Ayala

In talking about Ayala a few weeks back, Williams said the veteran reliever was a good fit.

"He's certainly one of the guys we're considering and he pitched well," Williams said. "He's got experience closing games, seventh, eighth inning, so that's good. It's good to have somebody out there with that type of experience that simply does what he does and trusts that we're going to make the play behind him."

If they're determined to add another lefty, will the Nationals turn to Cedeno or Gonzalez? Was the minor league deal the Nationals gave to Mike Gonzalez last week a sign that they're unhappy with the options they have in camp?

"It's not the lack of being satisfied with the guys that we have in camp," Williams explained last week.

"But [Gonzalez is] a guy that comes with a reputation of being able to do that role and [he was] available. And so he told us that he's been throwing. He's going to get a physical today and then get into the rotation of pitching. If he's out there and available, there's nothing wrong with taking a look and seeing where he's at right now. So, it's not that we're actively out looking for anybody else, but Mike's got certainly history here and he's a veteran guy, knows what he's doing, so take a look."

Ryan Mattheus played a big role in the bullpen in 2012, but he dealt with a self-inflicted injury last season and has been off to a slow start dealing with a rib issue this spring. Clay Hensley? Manny Delcarmen? Delcarmen has thrown three scoreless this spring, striking out five. And then there's Christian Garcia.

Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell responded to a reader who asked about Garcia earlier this spring by saying, "If he's healthy, he's on the team."

Boswell also quoted Nats' pitching coach Steve McCatty, who said, "'all [Garcia's] pitches are plus...no, they're all above plus.'"

"The fact that he can throw the ball low-to-mid-90s with sink is most important. Then he can throw his breaking ball off of that." - Matt Williams on Christian Garcia

In a dominant inning of relief work against St. Louis on Sunday, Garcia struck out the side on 17 pitches, impressing his manager in the process.

"I think the majority of his strikeouts, of the three today, were heaters," Williams said. "I think one was a breaking ball, the other two were sinkers. The fact that he can throw the ball low-to-mid-90s with sink is most important. Then he can throw his breaking ball off of that. But he spiked a couple of them today. A little bit of overthrowing the breaking ball, but got back with his fastball, which is good. If he can command both sides of the plate, then he'll do really well."

"He wants to throw strikes and get ahead of hitters, and all that stuff," Williams said, "so he's got to take a little bit off, the ball will actually move a little bit more for him. Today he was good. He was really good."

Can Garcia force his way back into the picture at the major league level after a lost season last year? Will the Nationals go with two left-handers, taking either Gonzalez or Cedeno along with Blevins? There aren't many roster decisions for Matt Williams to make in his first Spring Training as a manager. But the makeup of his bullpen on Opening Day won't be an easy one...

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