The Washington Nationals signed 33-year-old veteran closer Casey Janssen over the offseason to serve as the primary setup man in front of Drew Storen. Unfortunately, Janssen suffered from shoulder fatigue during Spring Training and wasn't ready to begin the season with the club. His absence was certainly felt in the first month of the season.
Youth isn't always necessarily served
With Janssen beginning the year on the disabled list, the Nats bullpen looked kind of green. Among the pitchers in the Nats' opening day bullpen, only Craig Stammen, Drew Storen, and Matt Thornton had more than a full year's experience as big league relievers.
- Tanner Roark had a little over a year's worth of experience at the big league level, but he was making the transition from starting to relieving.
- Blake Treinen barely had enough innings as a starter last year to eliminate his rookie eligibility for this season, but he was new to relieving.
- Aaron Barrett generally pitched well as a rookie out of the bullpen last season, but he's in just his second season and hasn't proven he can consistently handle leverage spots.
- Xavier Cedeno entered the year as the second lefty in the bullpen, but he's a guy who has bounced around between AAA and the majors the past few seasons. He'd yet to really stick as a major leaguer.
This left the Nats with three proven, dependable arms to begin the year. That paltry depth took a further hit early in the year, as Stammen's season ended after his appearance on April 14. The options available to replace Stammen in the minors were also pretty green...
- Rafael Martin had never reached the majors prior to this season, though he'd had some success in the high minors
- Felipe Rivero was yet another pitcher in his first season moving from the rotation to the bullpen, and was recalled to replace Xavier Cedeno when the club DFA'd him
- Matt Grace has been terrific as the second lefty in the bullpen since he got called up, but he's yet another rookie
- Sammy Solis is also transitioning from the rotation to the bullpen, is a rookie, and missed most of 2014 due to injury
Quite a few of these relievers who are either young and/or recently became relievers are talented enough so that they project to have plenty of long-term value. Unfortunately, this didn't necessarily mean that they were ready to be thrust into high leverage spots at the big league level immediately. Without Janssen and Stammen, someone had to step into those spots. The early results weren't particularly encouraging.
Roles, roles, blah blah blah
Whether we're fans of bullpen roles or not (I'm not), we have to accept that Nats manager Matt Williams seems to believe in relievers having set roles. Williams' early usage of Blake Treinen early in the year inspired quite a few rants from me. He was continually putting Treinen into situations where he had poor matchups, but Williams appeared to be doing so because his style of bullpen management was so heavily focused on roles. Losing his primary right-handed setup man created a void for Williams when he was managing with late leads. This seemed to create a situation where he often looked like he was trying to fit round pegs in square holes. He was trying to force a couple of his healthy relievers into spots where they hadn't developed any type of comfort zone to see if he could find someone who would work in those spots.
Janssen is more likely to make this work. He has the experience at the back of the bullpen so that we know he's not going to tighten up when he's placed in a high stress situation because we've seen him do it so many times before. He doesn't have the overwhelming lefty-righty splits (.252/.315/.371 vs. LHH, .248/.293/.397 vs. RHH for Janssen) that a pitcher like Treinen has had throughout his career. He's not still adapting to being a reliever, so warming up quickly isn't as new to him as it is to pitchers like Treinen or Roark.
While I've ranted quite a bit about roles early this season, the one way that having roles that are generally set in the bullpen does provide an advantage is that it can help the relievers settle in. A pitcher like Treinen, who has big stuff and plenty of upside in the bullpen, is likely to have an easier time making the adjustment to relieving if he's being used in lower pressure situations at first. A guy like Barrett, who struggled with control issues in his rookie season, can relax a bit more when he's generally used in lower pressure spots. Matt Grace should be able to slot into more spots against lefties earlier in games because Williams isn't worried about having to use Matt Thornton as his best option in a setup role regardless of who might bat in the eighth inning. Janssen's presence should help ease the stress put on the young arms and give them an easier transition into pitching in the majors.
Janssen's return to the bullpen has been huge early on. He's yet to allow a hit in 2.2 innings, notching a pair of Holds in the process. He came into a high pressure spot on Wednesday after Matt Grace had allowed the first two runners to reach with a 2-0 lead in the eighth inning and quickly defused the situation.
Is Casey Janssen going to be as good as Tyler Clippard was for so many years with the Nats? Probably not... He should still be a huge boost to the bullpen the rest of the way. He'll help the youngsters settle in. Just as importantly, he'll give his manager a guy he knows he can count on when the game is on the line.