Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Wanted: More quality relievers

CHICAGO -- Sitting inside his cramped office at Wrigley Field late Monday afternoon, Jim Riggleman talked about the need for some of his relief pitchers not named Matt Capps or Tyler Clippard to start coming through in key situations.

"Tonight would be a great night for that to happen," the Nationals manager said.

Some five hours later, as Brian Bruney was trudging off the mound after issuing a four-pitch, bases-loaded walk in the 10th inning of a 4-3 loss to the Cubs, Riggleman could only sigh and wonder what might have been.

Three weeks into this already-surprising season, the Nationals have gotten plenty of top-notch performances. Livan Hernandez and Ivan Rodriguez have been fantastic. Josh Willingham and Ryan Zimmerman (when he plays) have been solid. Capps and Clippard have been virtually unhittable.

But if the Nats are serious about sustaining their early season momentum and actually keeping themselves on the fringe of contention, they're going to have to get contributions from a lot more players. And that begins in a bullpen that boasts far too few sure things at the moment.

Someone else has got to step up and share the load with Capps and Clippard. Sean Burnett took a step in the right direction tonight in retiring both batters he faced. Tyler Walker also did his part, retiring four of five batters in a tie game.

But Bruney is the guy who's supposed to be counted upon in these situations. The Nationals acquired the 28-year-old right-hander from the Yankees in December and then paid him $1.5 million to be their primary setup man. So what have they received so far for their investment? 10 shaky relief appearances that have resulted in six earned runs and 19 baserunners in 9 2/3 innings. An astounding 12 of those batters have reached base via walk.

Bruney added three more free passes to the ledger tonight, all of them on four straight pitches, the final one an embarrassing bases-loaded walk to Aramis Ramirez to end the game.

"I was the only one out there throwing the baseball when that run scored, and I walked him in. I put this one on me," the pitcher said. "Unfortunately, this is not a good feeling to have. In a locker room full of guys who are busting their [butts], I go out there and walk a guy to win the game. I'm obviously not happy with myself."

In fairness to Bruney, this one wasn't entirely his fault. He allowed two weak singles in the 10th: a slow grounder through the right side hole and a blooper behind second base. They weren't necessarily plays Cristian Guzman should have made, but they were plays a good second baseman has a chance to make.

Blame for loss No. 10 of 20 also goes to John Lannan, who himself issued three straight walks in the second, including a four-pitch free pass to opposing pitcher Carlos Silva with the bases loaded.

"It was crappy," Lannan said. "I fell apart in the second, and that can't happen."

It also didn't help that Nyjer Morgan misjudged a line drive hit over his head earlier in that second inning, leading to another run, or that the Nationals' lineup went 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position.

But those misdeeds would have been overshadowed had Bruney simply thrown the ball over the plate in the 10th inning and given his teammates a chance to win the game.

How much longer can Riggleman stick with the struggling right-hander in tight situations? Probably not much more. He's already displayed far more trust in Clippard to get through both the seventh and eighth innings in setting up Capps, and that will likely continue. He may start handing the ball more frequently to Walker or even Miguel Batista in setup situations, though neither of those seems like a strong alternative.

The answer, actually, may currently be sleeping in a hotel room in Reading, Pa.

Drew Storen continues to dominate the minor leagues. He's allowed only one run in 7 1/3 innings for Class AA Harrisburg, a continuation of his dominance from last season. In 34 games now as a professional pitcher, Storen owns a 1.83 ERA, is allowing less than five hits per nine innings and has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 57-to-9. Yes, 57 strikeouts to nine walks in 44 1/3 minor-league innings.

You think Storen's going to walk in the winning run with the bases loaded in the 10th?

Problem is, the Nationals have been planning to wait to promote the first-round draft pick until late-May or early-June, thus delaying his arbitration and free-agent clocks, much as they're doing with Stephen Strasburg.

But can this team afford to wait around for bullpen help? Can it continue to rely on guys like Bruney to pitch in key situations in hostile environments?

If the Nationals are serious about turning this surprisingly competitive start into something more, they may have to rethink their long-term plan in the interest of short-term success.


Jenn Jenson said...

That was a very painful way to lose. I would love to see Drew in DC for the next home stand, but the last couple of years have toughened me up. I can take it if I have to wait.

In the glow of Tyler Clippard, can I wonder out loud if one or more of our not-quite starting pitchers might be able to provide temporary help in the bullpen?

Natsochist said...

Here's an idea: Send Storen to Syracuse. Let him face the best the minors have to offer, so the front office can be sure he's ready if they decide they DO need him.

After that? I love Colin "Ron Jeremy's Mustache" Balester as much as the next guy, but his numbers this year just ain't adding up. Send him down to AA and promote a certain young stud to Syracuse.

Sidenote: Is it possible to call Strasburg "The Second Coming" when we haven't had a First Coming to begin with? Name me one elite Nats pitcher who qualifies and I may have to buy you a beer.

hleeo3 said...

Strasburg has been known as the second coming of Walter Johnson...

BlueShorts1067 said...

continue to WAIT. for the love of God, wait on Storen. I love that you're questioning the status quo, and finding the story between the lines. You know this as well as I do, their early success will not yield any sort of playoff scenario. Get that extra year out of Storen, then bring him up as planned and make a mid-season push if the opportunity presents itself.

Sunderland said...

Mark, I'll disagree on one point. Capps has indeed been hittable. He's had only 1 outing when he went an inning without allowing a base hit. He's put 17 guys on base in only 11.1 innings.
He'll blow some saves at some point.
How the bullpen reacts to that will be interesting. The confidence this team has is built partly on Capps having been able to close every lead he's been given.
Coming into this season, he had blown 10 saves out of 43 save opportunities since mid-June 2008. That's 23%.
He puts too many people on base to not have some rough stretches.

Another point about last night's game. This is one for sure that we would have won if Zimmerman were playing. Kennedy would have made some plays at 2B that Guzman did not.

NatsNut said...

Batista isn't THAT bad is he? I keep remembering his solid 5 innings when Marquis lost it.

Anonymous8 said...

OK, Bruney didn't mow them down, and did cause his own problems. It wasn't also as bad as it looked. Cristian Guzman got twisted like a pretzel on that infield fringe pop-up and Bruney didn't get any borderline pitch calls.

The Nats aren't going to win every game. Lannan himself stunk it up which he eluded to on his chat with reporters and amazingly pieced things back together.

It was the offense that had chances and could only score 3 runs which is why it went into extras. Cristian Guzman had clutch opportunities and went 0-5. Then the great RF platoon members of Taveras and Harris combined for 0-4, and Kennedy was 0-3.

Willie Harris needs some time to heal on the DL because outside of that one HR that won a game for the Nats and some good defense, something isn't right with Willie Harris. Tavares has turned back into the hitter he always was, and you can see Justin Maxwell is struggling at the plate although he has a decent OBP, and Kennedy hasn't done much of anything when given the chance.

Time to get Morse and Bernadina back here.

Jeeves said...

Mark, from what I've read, Walker didn't do well at all. He was just lucky the wind was blowing in. Both he and Bruney have been very poor from the get-go. (Spring training, etc). These are both pitchers that their previous teams just let go. I wonder why.

Anonymous said...

Time to get Jermaine Dye in here...

Anonymous8 said...

Jermaine Dye at best may be a short-term solution to a long-term problem. With his time away, he would have to ramp up his offense at a time when his defensive skills weren't cutting it last year anyway.

The Nats need to trade for a RF at the trade deadline.

dale said...

Several points...

No need to wait on Storen. The half life of a closer is usually measured in a two or three year period when he is very effective. Bring him up now.

Why not bring up Bernardina instead of trading for a RF or signing Jermaine Dye? You keep the defense well upgrading the offense over what we have now.

Neither Tyler Walker nor Bruney impress me at all. Riggleman can not afford to run him out there in another situation where the score is tied or we are winning by a run.

Guzman. Guzman. Guzman. Sigh.

Tcostant said...

If anyone wants to see what former Nat's pitcher Mike Bacsik is up to, check this out.


Anonymous said...

You can't be serious. Rush Storen to the bigs on the off chance that a month of his services in May is going to make a difference in 2010?
No way. Stick to the plan.

Doc said...

We all like what Nyjer Morgan brings to a game, but he seems to loose his concentration on the basepaths, and sometimes in the field like the misjudged liner in last night's game.

NatinBeantown said...

Amid the flood of walks last night, my inner Polyanna screams out.

#1) We had NO business being in a game we nearly won. FIVE key players were (mostly) unavailabe: Capps, Clippard, Zimm, Pudge and Harris. 6-7-8 hitters of Kennedy-Nieves-Tavaras? That's a getaway day lineup, but Rigg's hand was forced.

#3) Lannan hates sabremetrics. A(nother) quality start with a 0.2 K/BB rate.

#4) Dunn's last 4 games: 7/16, 4 2B, 4 HR, 2BB. OPS of 1.450+ (sample size alert, but still...)

NatinBeantown said...

Sorry, 2-2B and 2-HR. Still a good run...

Anonymous said...

#4) Dunn's last 4 games: 7/16, 4 2B, 4 HR, 2BB. OPS of 1.450+ (sample size alert, but still...)

Dude, he only has 3 HR for the season. How could he have 4 in the last 4 games?

NatinBeantown said...

Anon - yeah, I should have some coffee first. The first pass was just a typo, though. He does appear to have turned a corner. Looking forward to some warmer weather and a Zimm-Dunn-Hammer heart of the order.

Anonymous8 said...

NatinBeantown - All good points. If the team gets Desmond in the 2 hole then:

1) Morgan
2) Desmond
3) Zim
4) Dunn
5) Hammer
6) Guzman
7) Pudge
8) The defensive replacement in RF

Does anyone in the Nats organization want to step up and take the RF position?

Paul said...

Let Storen get some unflappable confidence in the minors by dominating for a long time. If we promote him now and he gets shelled, people will make the case that he needs to go back down. If we let him continue to put in his time a prove that he has nothing left to prove there, I think that everyone will be better served.

Souldrummer said...

The flip side to this post is someone needs to do the economic analysis on promoting Storen at this time and the likely wins above replacement and the cost of those wins on the arbitration clock. I would like to see Storen up here sooner rather than later because he signed early and didn't haggle with the initial contract. Strasburg and his representation are going to play hardball with the Nats at the end of this contract. Storen might remember the team that gave him a chance early if he gets promoted early.

I think the half the reason Storen's not here is that he is probably helping Strasburg deal with the off field hype and they want to promote them together.

Tcostant said...

I agree we should get Storen to the majors now. The case with Strustburg is different, he will command major dollars as a Super Two or being a free agent a year early.

While Storen will be luckly to cash out at free agent time, as the track record for RP are just not as costly. Plus look at Chad, everyone thought he would cash in, but things happen. Same with Capps, great early and than looking for a job here. We need to get Storen's stuff to the majors now. If we need to pay a few extra aribtration dollars two years from now, it still won't be that much.

Farid Rushdi said...

I'm not sure how much Bruney can do. Entering 2010, he's allowed an astounding 6.4 walks per nine-innings.

Why should we have believed that after a seven-year career he would suddenly find the plate? His lowest walk-to-nine-inning ratio was 4.2 and his highest was 7.8.

Thus far, he's alloing 11.7 walks-per-nine-innings this season.

Brian Bruney is what he is. Sometimes, he throws strikes and gets people out. Sometimes, he can't throw a strike and his team loses.

I like Brian Bruney but I'm afraid the Nationals can't make that jump to respectability with "last year type players" on the squad.

I think when Drew Storen arrives, Bruney, and not Miquel Batista or Tyler Walker, could be the odd-man out.

Anonymous said...

Sunderland, just so you know, re: 23% blown saves, a league average pitcher would be expected to blow around 26% of saves (trust me, I did some pretty extensive calculations). I don't think anyone has the illusion that Capps is anything more than a league average pitcher, so I don't think people will be TOO disappointed if he ends up blowing a few saves. It's not like we paid Brad Lidge money for the man.

CoverageisLacking said...

Bruney has *always* been a hard thrower with horrible control. It's not as if he's going through some inexplicable control problems with the Nats that he's never had before. There's a reason why the Yankees left Bruney off their postseason roster for the first 2 rounds last year and used rookie relievers instead of him, and why he only got 1 appearance in the WS (in which he was shelled).

But the real problem here is not Bruney's control. The real problem is why the Nats "acquired the 28-year-old right-hander from the Yankees in December and then paid him $1.5 million to be their primary setup man" and thought that this plan would work out. It's more of the same--picking up a guy on the cheap and thinking he will magically overcome his proven track record. No different, really, than thinking Daniel Cabrera could be a #3 starter, or that Hanrahan could be a big league closer.

CoverageisLacking said...

Farid I didn't see your post before posting, you beat me to it. The point remains...

Wily Mo Peterson said...

Farid, you are right, Bruney has never been a very accurate pitcher with his K's barely out pacing his BB's. In Bruney's best season in 2008, he threw only 34 innings but had a 2:1 K to BB ratio, a .99 whip and a sub 2 era. But generally he is pretty erratic.

I can see now why the Yankee's gave up on him. I have a feeling that Bruney is one of those pitchers who needs to throw as hard as his body will allow to be effective, but he has little control when throwing that hard, and if he takes a little off his pitches then he gets hit around the yard.

We got him for nothing, if he cant get it together give up on him and bring up Storen.

phil dunn said...

Relief pitchers with control issues are pure poison. Bruney has always had control problems. Some seasons, he's averaged nearly a walk an inning. So, why would he be any different in DC and why did Rizzo bring him here? On another matter, there is a huge offensive void in RF, yet Rizzo continues to sit on his hands. Maxwell, Taveras and Harris are collectively batting about.150 with no power. Maxwell will never hit major league pitching, Taveras is a joke and Harris is a bench player. At this point, Austin Kearns would be an upgrade, and believe me I'm no Austin Kearns fan.

NatinBeantown said...

Phil Dunn got me curious, so here are some numbers:

League AVG RF:
.258 BA, .798 OPS, 1 HR/25 PA, 1 K/4.8 PA

Willie*, Justin and Willy:
.170 BA, .663 OPS, 1 HR/33 PA, 1 K/4.3 PA

(*includes Harris's AB's at other positions, cuz I'm too lazy to net them out)

P. Cole said...

What happened to Jesse English?

Steve M. said...

I am calling the RF debacle the "Curse of Elijah Dukes".

Again, credit to Rizzo and especially Riggleman for the quality of play the last few weeks with only 3 wheels on the 4 wheel wagon!

Steve M. said...

Here's what I am thinking on the relievers is that after watching the Orioles, the Nationals are head and shoulders above them and the Nationals have a plan.

Stammen would be a really good guy in long relief once Strasburg and Wang takes their spots, and Storen will fit in well in Bruney's slot. If English can hold up, that would be great as the team needs 2 capable lefties in the 'pen! So bring 2 guys in to the bullpen and get rid of the 2 weak links.

Slidell said...

At the risk of sending a few people bouncing out of their chairs--- there are 2 RF possibilities out there who are currently clearly outperforming our current crop; Kearns and Church. I happened to like both when they were here. I'm well aware of the baggage, but for Austin at least, his attitude and character would certainly fit right in our clubhouse. IF healthy and productive, as he now seems to be, he would be better than most of the discussed alternatives.

Unknown said...

I know you aren't a huge J.D. Martin fan, but do you think there is a chance they may use him for some relief work? He missed the last AAA start, so wondering if there is a move in the works or (hope not) potential injury? I saw he went 6 2/3 innings and then only 5 his last start. Thanks for the great articles,
Rich in Ridgecrest, CA

Mark Zuckerman said...

Stressfree: I would think Martin would be the next guy called up from Syracuse if the Nats need another starter. Not sure they'd move him to the bullpen just yet, though. That seems like more of a last resort. They still think of J.D. as a starter first.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe all this talk about Capps. Nats have 10 wins, he has 8 saves. Now you are worried about the number of hits he gives up. Hmmmm!

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