One of the biggest concerns for the Washington Nationals as spring training reaches its end has been the health of closer Drew Storen. Storen hasn't pitched in three weeks due to inflammation in his right elbow.
As reported by the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore, an MRI exam found no structural damage. But Storen has been told to rest and not throw for at least four days. The Nationals expect him to begin the season on the disabled list.
But the Nationals probably won't have to worry to much about who will pitch the ninth inning, thanks to a savvy offseason signing by general manager Mike Rizzo. Brad Lidge was brought in as a free agent to give the bullpen depth, but now looks like he'll be a closer again.
Nats manager Davey Johnson told reporters that Lidge or Henry Rodriguez will close out games in Storen's absence. Rodriguez and his 100 mph fastball will surely get some save chances, but pitching him in different high-leverage situations throughout a ballgame might be the best use of his talents.
Keeping Tyler Clippard as the setup man, a role in which he excelled last year (1.83 ERA, 104 strikeouts in 88 1/3 innings), is probably the smart move.
Like many major league managers, Johnson apparently prefers using players in roles they're familiar with. Lidge, 35, is definitely accustomed to pitching in the ninth inning, having saved 223 games over a 10-year major league career.
Lidge missed the first half of last season after tearing his rotator cuff. And when he returned, his velocity was way down. That forced him to rely on his slider, which he had trouble locating. Yet by the end of the season, he was looking more like his old dominant self.
But Lidge insists he's fully healthy now, and throwing better than he did at any point last year.
“There’s nothing prohibiting me from throwing inside or outside, throwing sliders wherever,” he told the Post's Kilgore. “I was a little tentative when I came back last year. The way I finished off the year last year, command-wise, I feel like I’m there right now. … If I’m throwing 90 with command of my slider, that’s good. Anything above that is gravy."
Some observers might wince at Johnson leaning toward Lidge because he's shown he can pitch the ninth inning. (In fairness, Johnson hasn't been quoted as actually saying that and apparently wants to see Rodriguez close some games, too.) But using him in that role gives Johnson more flexibility, allowing him to use better relievers in more important situations.
Lidge was already signed at a bargain, agreeing to a one-year, $1 million contract. At that price, he could end up being an absolute steal.