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Drew Storen will have to pitch in a setup role for new closer Rafael Soriano.
The Nationals had one of baseball's best bullpens last season, a deep, talented and balanced group that featured two capable closers, one of the best left-handers in the game, a couple up-and-coming right-handers, a veteran lefty and a reliable long man. And general manager Mike Rizzo had the ability to keep that entire unit intact, if he was willing to spend the money necessary to retain everyone.
Rizzo, though, didn't feel like his three lefties (Sean Burnett, Michael Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny) were worth the contracts each stood to receive either via free agency or arbitration. So all three were left to sign elsewhere, creating an obvious dearth of southpaws in this team's bullpen.
Rizzo did make overtures to a few other available left-handers on the market, most notably J.P. Howell, but in the end decided none were worth it and so instead spent his money on the one thing the Nationals didn't seem to need: Another closer.
Last month's signing of Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million deal -- that number is a bit misleading because half of his salary is deferred way down the road -- took everyone by surprise, headlined by the man who suddenly lost his job pitching in the ninth inning.
"It kind of caught me off guard, but there is no doubt that he is going to make the team better, you can't argue with that," Drew Storen said. "It makes the team better, so that's what I'm concerned about. It doesn't make my job any different. I've still got to control what I can control and get guys out; it doesn't matter what inning it is."
The Soriano signing does give the Nationals as good of a late-inning trio as you'll find in the majors, with Storen and Tyler Clippard setting up the new closer, but it also creates an entirely new dynamic in what had been a close-knit and highly successful bullpen.
That dynamic is changed not only with the addition of Soriano but with the departures of Burnett, Gonzalez and Gorzelanny. All were well-liked, not to mention effective pitchers, and their absence will be noticeable this spring.
What will also be noticeable is the complete lack of a traditional left-handed reliever in the group. Zach Duke does return after a strong year at Class AAA Syracuse followed by a solid September in Washington, but he'll serve as Davey Johnson's long man and emergency starter, not a late-inning specialist who is brought in to face the opponent's top left-handed slugger in key spots.
Assuming Duke makes the Opening Day roster, there's probably only one relief spot up for grabs this spring. That spot could be filled by a number of candidates.
There's right-hander Christian Garcia, who dazzled during his September call-up and earned a spot on the postseason roster. The Nationals do intend to stretch Garcia out this spring and potentially send him to Syracuse as a starter, but he could still make the big-league roster as a reliever.
There's left-hander Bill Bray, a former first-round draft pick of the Expos who made his big-league debut for the Nationals in 2006 before being dealt to Cincinnati in the blockbuster, eight-player trade that brought Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez to D.C. Signed to a minor-league contract this winter, Bray will be given a real shot to make the Opening Day roster and serve as that all-important lefty specialist.
And, not to be forgotten, there's still right-hander Henry Rodriguez, whose electric stuff still makes scouts drool but who has yet to show any consistency at the big-league level and who is coming off surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. As was the case last year, Rodriguez is out of minor-league options. So he must either make the big-league roster, be exposed to waivers or land back on the disabled list.
No matter who wins that seventh and final spot, the Nationals know they'll open the season with one of the sport's best bullpens once again. It's just going to look considerably different than the relief corps we saw last year.
And it's going to require a couple of guys with track records as closers to accept lesser roles.
"If we can add another piece to the puzzle that is going to help us get where we want to be," Clippard said, "if we're sitting here on November 1st with the trophy for the World Series, then no one is going to be complaining about anything. That's what we're striving for."