Friday, May 7, 2010

Still searching for another reliever

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Ryan Zimmerman's sixth-inning homer wasn't enough to carry the Nats tonight.
Steve McCatty sighed as he pondered the state of the Nationals bullpen, one that features two dominant (and overworked) right-handers in Matt Capps and Tyler Clippard ... and no one else reliable enough to be counted on in the late innings.

"You can't have Clip every day," the Nats pitching coach said. "You want somebody to go out there and just to grab it and say: 'I'm going to pitch that inning. Seventh-eighth inning, you can rely on me.'"

Alas, that guy has yet to identify himself, and it's becoming a bigger and bigger problem for a Nationals club that sorely needed someone like that tonight in a 4-2 loss to the Marlins.

What had been a tight pitchers' duel between Craig Stammen and Chris Volstad turned in the eighth inning, when Brian Bruney allowed two runs to score on two singles, two walks and his own error trying to field a sacrifice bunt.

Thus ended the latest unsightly outing for Bruney, who entered the season as the Nationals' top setup man but at this point might not be trusted for anything other than mop-up duty.

Bruney's updated season numbers: 1-2 with a 6.00 ERA, 17 hits and 18 walks in 15 innings. Yes, that's 1.2 walks per inning, 2.33 baserunners per inning.

"I'm busting my ass out there," the right-hander said. "I'm trying as hard as I can. I feel like these guys in there know how hard I work. They know how hard I'm trying. I think that's all you can ask for. The results, it's kind of out of my control. Obviously I have some work I need to do. I understand that. I need to quit walking people."

Whatever Bruney's issues are -- mechanical or mental -- the Nationals can't afford to wait for him to figure it out. They're playing good baseball, and more importantly, playing close baseball almost every single night. A strong (and deep) bullpen is an absolute must right now.

Capps (1.10 ERA, 11 saves in 11 tries) and Clippard (4-0, 0.42 ERA) have been phenomenal; the Nats couldn't ask for any more out of either. But Capps is on pace to appear in 84 games this season and Clippard is on pace to throw 119 innings out of the bullpen. As manager Jim Riggleman put it yesterday, Clippard "won't be able to comb his hair" by season's end if this keeps up.

So Clippard was unavailable tonight, even though the situation (tie game, eighth inning) desperately called for him.

"It's been a little bit of a problem for us so far," Riggleman said. "Many times, Clippard's bailed us out. But we can't keep asking him to go in there as early as the seventh."

So what are Riggleman's other options? Sean Burnett has begun to throw the ball better, and the Nationals are considering using the left-hander against batters from both sides of the plate. But that leaves the club without any other lefties in the bullpen. Miguel Batista is needed as a long man. Tyler Walker has been too erratic.

Salvation currently sits 373 miles to the north of Washington, straight up Interstate-81. His name is Drew Storen, and he is exactly what the Nationals need.

Storen's total minor-league numbers since getting drafted last summer: 2-1, 1.80 ERA, 15 saves in 15 tries, 62 strikeouts and nine walks in 50 innings.

Yes, he's only made three appearances at Class AAA Syracuse (including a scoreless ninth tonight to preserve Stephen Strasburg's victory) but he's already established a record of dominance at every stage of minor-league baseball.

Don't count on Storen's final promotion quite yet, though.

"He's had just minimal time so far, a couple of innings here and there, at Triple-A," Riggleman said. "I think we're a little ways away from that. I hope he can handle it when he gets here. But I'd like for somebody to pitch well enough here that we don't even need to make that move."

There's only one legitimate reason Storen isn't in the majors yet: Money. By holding him down for another three weeks or so, the Nationals can prevent him from attaining "Super 2" status and reaching arbitration after the 2011 season. It's a valid reason to wait to make the move, and one just about every other franchise in baseball would use.

But here's the problem: The Nationals, for all their talk about building for the future, may actually have a window of opportunity right now. No one expected this, but they're competitive in 2010 and showing few signs of letting up. This is far from a flawless team, but there appears to be enough here to at least hover around the fringes of a pennant race and perhaps make the leap into true contenders once Strasburg arrives next month.

The Nats are getting pretty good starting pitching. They're getting just enough offense. They're playing solid defense. And they've got two fantastic relievers. The biggest hole on the roster right now is another setup man. Just one more reliable reliever would make a huge difference.

Yet the young man who most could help this team, right now and down the road, is stuck at Class AAA, biding his time for a few more weeks until the financial rules of baseball make his promotion viable.

Until then, well, the Nationals will just have to hope for the best every time the bullpen door swings open and someone not named Clippard or Capps comes trotting out.


Section 222 said...

How much are they paying Tyler Walker and Brian Bruney? A million each I would guess. Storen isn't going to command all that much more in arbitration, even if he's a superstud for three years. If he is, it will be totally worth it. Come on Lerners, this is penny wise and pound foolish. Our bullpen is a serious problem. We want Drew now!

Les in NC said...

'Clippard is on pace to pitch 119 innings', but thats if the pen stays the same for the entire season, right? Why not use Clipp, if and when he feels he can, other than arbitrarily not because he projects to pitch a high number of innings? The fact is, there is pitching help coming, in June or whenever, so if you must overwork your only bulldogs that are reliable until then, then why not? If Storen and or anyone else that may be brought up blows up in the majors then go to Rizzo to try and trade for the help we need! Everyone knows the bullpen will look alot different the further into the season we get. So smoke 'em if ya got 'em now, and when/if help is brought in, THEN rest em!

Cwj said...

I'm glad to hear Sean Burnett's name finally mentioned, even if just in passing. One would think that his solid 2009 would garner more trust than has been shown him so far this season.

Souldrummer said...

Really the answer to this problem is to give lefty/righty conscious Riggleman another left handed guy in the bullpen so that we can localize the problem into a "we don't have a LOOGY", rather than a we don't have a middle reliever of substance.

So the questions are twofold:
1) Given a chance can Burnett do a passable job of getting both lefties and righties out?
2) Given a chance is there anyone is Syracuse or Harrisburg who is worthy of the chance to be a LOOGY?

Garate has been lights out in Harrisburg methinks. English made the squad out of spring training.
Give Riggleman another lefty or tell him to forget about lefty righty matchups. I realize that Batista may have to go but we'll see what happens. I guess now Walker will get a chance to prove himself next time Clippard is burned out and we a need a bridge guy to Capps, but I wonder how that will play out.

Wouldn't it be great if Chico could pitch a solid game tomorrow and add another name to the mix of possibilities?

Anonymous said...

Bad News Bruney strikes again. It was bad enough that Riggleman trotted him out there to begin with but the guy needs to be on a shorter leash.

Jeeves said...

There are options at AAA and AA.-- Severano, Peraltra (sp)Garate to name some. But the team seems determined to stick with their winter acquisitions come hell or high water.
Those options might not pan out but they can't do much worse than Bruney and Walker and maybe another Clippard will turn up. The Brass certainly didn't know Clip would turn out to be so good at the time.

Anonymous said...

Hey, another option for relief pitching is to allow the starters to go a little longer. Allow the starters to try to work out of their own messes. I mean, they're being paid millions so let them do a little more work in tough times, like pitchers used to do. Geesh, it is a nine inning game. Why pull a starter, who is doing well, in the sixth inning and give three guys from the bullpen a chance to lose the game? I know, there are all kinds of ways to look at it. This is the way I'm looking at it now.

Sunderland said...

The problem with some of the Syracuse options is that they're not on the 40 man roster (Severino is, he is left handed, and he has pitched well. But if they're calling up a lefty reliever, it's Jesse English first).
There are at least 2 roster moves coming soon, making room for Drew Storen and Ross Detwiler.

So I'm sure Rizzo does not want to make another roster move unless it's for someone who is really likely to make a difference and someone who is really likely to stick around.

But he's got to do something. He knows that his bullpen is a big weakness, it erodes confidence in the whole clubhouse, and it's his job to fix it.

Anonymous said...

Regarding shorter leash on Bruney -- right on. I was calling for that last night. But I'm thinking that the lack of the hook confirms how thin that pen really is.

D'Gourds said...

Listening to Bruney's comments after the game tell it all--he's delusional! He actually thought he pitched well last night and balls just "dropped in"! He fails to remember the walks, his error and his errant pitches two feet out of the strike zone. His command sucks and he becomes unraveled when he faces adversity (especially of his own doing). He even called out his own team's defense. He gives the usual platitudes that it wasn't his night and he's working hard, blah, blah, blah. But something has to change if he wants to be an effective major league pitcher. They should send him to AAA to work on his mechanics and bring up Kown who's quietly having a terrific season with an ERA of 1.50. I don't have a problem with Rizzo keeping Strasburg and Storen down until June. Baseball is a business. It's not worth the extra millions lost in arbitration for a couple of months with these guys in the majors. Also the seasoning in the minors will do them good. We're in this for the long haul. Let's stop focusing on the short term--The Nats will be an elite team in 2-3 years--just be patient.

Grandstander said...

Sean Burnett:
(17AB) Vs. L -.294 .316 .647 .963

(10AB) Vs. R -.100 .308 .100 .408

I think it's time to let Burnett start pitching against all batters...

Joe Rizzo said...

The level of proficiency from the Clip/Capp Combo is beyond expectation, so shudder to think about the record without their performance. Skipper has repeated this consistently: other guys need to step up. Until June (Strasburg, Storen) and July (Wang, Detwiler), any "fix" would be myopic and possibly detrimental to the 2011+ vision and beyond.

Clip/Capp Combo...I like that, so here: Clip/Capp Combo(TM). I hereby give Zuckerman full rights for use.

Anonymous8 said...

Mark Zuckerman said...Whatever Bruney's issues are -- mechanical or mental -- the Nationals can't afford to wait for him to figure it out. They're playing good baseball, and more importantly, playing close baseball almost every single night. A strong (and deep) bullpen is an absolute must right now.

Mark, you hit the nail on the head again. Who does Bruney remind me of? Joel Hanrahan!

McCatty can tell you his problem is a combination of mechanical and mental. He is missing his spots. He is lucky he didn't give up any Home Runs yesterday. When he throws that fastball right down Broadway if the hitter was sitting dead red fastball, it would be deposited in the stands. His fastball didn't have a lot of movement.

Riggles uses all 25 men on the roster. There's no place to hide guys like Willy Taveras, Justin Maxwell (now demoted), and Bruney. Rizzo can't make the mistake of the prior administration where they tried to hide the weak links or worse---showcase them like LoPuca, Estrada, FLop and Kearns.

Bruney has exactly 3 weeks to figure it out or he needs to get DFA'd to make room for someone who can do it.

If this team is really different from the prior years, they need to show that they are willing to walk away from their mistakes [players] without looking at the salaries they have to eat.

Wally said...

I think that Mock is a candidate to replace Bruney when he is healthy. The high pitch counts won't mean as much as a reliever. He is also better first time through a lineup.

They ought to give some thought to JD Martin for Batista's role

Tegwar said...

I don't think it is a coincidence that Matt Chico is left-handed and on the 40 man roster? Chico is Rizzo's boy (pun intended) plus he is a veteran something Rizzo values. Now all he has to do is pitch well.

natscan reduxit said...

... I'm not trying to compare Brian Bruney with Stephen Strasburg, no one could. But both pitched last night and there is a comparison to make ... of sorts.

... after the game, Bruney said, " ... they're just fighting off some tough pitches and getting me deep in counts. When the time to make a pitch has come, I'm not making that pitch. It's something I need to get better at, cut down those walks and keep guys off base." In other words, Brian needs to learn how to pitch, not just throw the pitches.

... we all know that Strasburg can throw the pitches; every story written about him (that I've read) has focussed on that part of his game. But can anyone - writers fans, anyone who has seen him - say for certain that he knows how to pitch?

Doc said...

It has to be mechanical with Bruney. In the meantime we have Grandstander's stats on Burnett. He's only pitched about 6 innings so far this season. When Riggleman thinks Bruney, he should really be thinking Burnett--maybe he gets the spelling of their names confused.

Anonymous said...

I don't get why the club keeps saying that Storen needs more time in the minors because he needs experience or whatever. Everyone knows it's because they don't want him to become a super two. Do they think people are stupid? It's weird to hear about how Strasburg and Storen need to be in the minors for some reason other than money and control. They're going to continue to lose games they could have won without those two. That's just the way it is.

Grandstander said...

Burnett: 7.1 IP 2.45 ERA 1.36 WHIP 7/4 K/BB
Bruney: 14 IP``6.00 ERA 2.40 WHIP 12/15 K/BB

Is there a question here?

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