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Piecing together the Washington Nationals' bullpen moving forward

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With the news that Craig Stammen has a torn flexor tendon, the Nats may need to consider adding a bullpen arm from outside the organization.

With the news that Craig Stammen may be done for the year, will the Nats need to go outside the organization to bolster the bullpen?
With the news that Craig Stammen may be done for the year, will the Nats need to go outside the organization to bolster the bullpen?
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Jayson Werth returned from the disabled list earlier this week.  Denard Span had his first rehab game in Hagerstown Thursday night, going 3-for-4 with (gasp) a home run.  Although Anthony Rendon still doesn't really have a timetable for his return, there's been some positive news as he's been taking grounders and taking some swings in the batting cage.  Alas, there can be only so much good news.

A day after being placed on the disabled list for the first time in his career, Craig Stammen was diagnosed with a torn flexor tendon that will require surgery.  Although it's not official that he'll miss the entire season, this is an injury that will most likely cost him the rest of 2015.  The Nats have already called up a few relievers that weren't really expected to see much major league action this season.  Taylor Jordan came up (didn't pitch) for a day before heading back to Syracuse.  Rafael Martin has come up and looked awfully impressive in his debut.  Lefty Felipe Rivero was the surprise replacement for Jordan, and will fill in as the second lefty in the bullpen at least temporarily.

One has to wonder if the Nats really plan on using Martin and Rivero as key parts of their bullpen, though.  The bullpen that the Nats entered 2015 with seemed a little green to begin with...

  • Blake Treinen has thrown 55.1 big league innings, predominantly as a starting pitcher
  • Aaron Barrett has thrown just 44.1 innings himself
  • Even Tanner Roark may have a bit of an adjustment period as he gets used to pitching out of the bullpen instead of the rotation.

The only two veteran relievers in the bullpen are Drew Storen and Matt Thornton.  While a pitcher doesn't necessarily have to be a veteran to be a good reliever, veterans do tend to be a little more predictable in terms of their performance.  We know that Storen and Thornton can produce at the big league level because we've seen them do it before.  We think that Martin and Rivero should be able to because they've performed well in the minors and are extremely talented.

Of course, the Nats do have one pitcher that I haven't mentioned who figures into the long term bullpen plans.  Casey Janssen has been throwing in Extended Spring Training, but there haven't been a whole lot of updates regarding a timetable for his return.  Assuming it won't be much longer, Janssen should be able to settle one of those bullpen spots in a few weeks, most likely pushing one of the inexperienced right-handers (Martin or Treinen) down to Syracuse.

Still, I'm not so sure I'm bursting with confidence about the bullpen that they'll now presumably be trotting out there for most of the season:

  • Tanner Roark
  • Aaron Barrett
  • Blake Treinen
  • Matt Thornton
  • Casey Janssen
  • Mix & Match minor league RHP
  • Mix & Match minor league LHP

I'm leaving the last two spots as "Mix & Match" spots because I don't think we've seen nearly enough out of Martin or Rivero to say that they're going to stick.  The Martin move wasn't really that much of a surprise.  At 30, he's too old to be considered a prospect, but he's torn up the minors in every season outside of 2012 when he was dealing with elbow and shoulder injuries.  He absolutely dominated three levels of the system last season, finishing the year with a 1.39 ERA, a 0.81 WHIP, and a 66:12 strikeout to walk ratio in 58.1 innings.  He finished 2014 as the closer in Syracuse and figured to be one of the first callups if they needed a reliever.

Perhaps the only person at Federal Baseball who wasn't surprised when the Nats called up Felipe Rivero on Thursday was Patrick Reddington.  He mentioned on last night's Nats Nightly that he had a feeling Rivero would be the first lefty to be called up if they needed one.  While Rivero was awfully impressive in March, I feel that this was an awfully aggressive move with the 23-year-old lefty.  Not only is Rivero adjusting to his new role (he's been a starter his entire career), but he only has 46.1 career innings above A ball.  With a veteran like Rich Hill in the minors and a more advanced potential rookie in Matt Grace, I find it really strange that the club called Rivero up on Thursday.

Anyway, let's look at the other "Mix & Match" options for those final couple of spots in the bullpen.......

  • Manny Delcarmen - With his start at AAA, he may not be too long for the organization.  He's allowed ten runs in his first three appearances (2.2 IP).  It's been about seven years since he was a good major leaguer, so he's probably out
  • Evan Meek is about four years removed from being a good major league reliever himself, but hey... experience, right?
  • Rich Hill could figure in as a second lefty, but it's been a while since he's had any big league success
  • Let's look at a guy who could be a real threat to Martin (or Barrett... or Treinen) for a spot in the major league bullpen at some point.  How about A.J. Cole?  He's a legit prospect who could figure into the Nats rotation mix next season if both Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann leave.  We've seen some organizations let guys get their feet wet at the big league level pitching out of the bullpen.  He could eventually be a weapon out of the bullpen in 2015, but I'm sure they'll want to keep him in Syracuse for most of the year
  • Matt Grace had a 1.17 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP, and a 62:25 strikeout to walk ratio in 77 innings between Harrisburg and Syracuse last season.  I was stunned that Rivero got the call ahead of him.  If Rivero doesn't come out of the gate on fire, Grace should be ready to replace him
  • While the Nats did call up Taylor Jordan when Stammen went to the DL, I think they're going to leave him in Syracuse to work predominantly as a starter.  Still, he could be in the mix

I don't really see anyone making the jump from AA.  Abel de los Santos had a great year in A+ ball for the Rangers last season, but he's pitched just four innings above A ball.  He looks like the best reliever in Harrisburg right now.  Maybe Eric Fornataro could be a guy that they look at if he gets off to a good start in Syracuse.  Cole and Grace look like intriguing potential options, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the Nats in the market for a reliever later this year.  Let's see how Martin and Rivero do....

Is Matt Williams learning?

I was quite pleased with Williams' handling of the bullpen in Thursday's 5-2 win over the Phillies.  He didn't hesitate to get Fister after he walked two Punch & Judy hitters to load the bases for the Phillies' best hitter.  While I don't necessarily view Thornton as a guy I'd like to see burned to just get one out, it was the right call to use him to face Utley... It was a reasonable decision to pull him for the eighth inning with Frenchy, Asche, and Ruiz the scheduled hitters.  Barrett had a three run lead and a pair of righties coming up in the eighth.  Pulling Thornton after one batter could prove to be important over the next couple of days since he'll be fresh for tomorrow and ready if he's needed to face a lineup that is a bit lefty dominant (Utley, Howard, Asche, Sizemore, and some switch hitters).  I do wonder what would have happened if Barrett had struggled a bit more and Howard had a chance to come up with a chance to do damage.  Thankfully, we didn't find out.

Anyway, the Nats have their first official winning streak of the season.  Let's hope they keep it rolling tonight!