Some Things I Just Will Never Understand...Like the Washington Nationals Bullpen

Nathaniel StoltzSenior Analyst IJune 21, 2009

NEW YORK - JUNE 18:  Craig Stammen #35  of The Washington Nationals pitches against The New York Yankees on June 18th, 2009 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx Borough of New York.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Before I begin, I'd just like to explain why I haven't written anything here in a year. Basically, last May, I got an internship writing for (the A's site on doing statistical analysis of my favorite team's minor league system.

It's a lot of fun, but it takes a lot of time (especially to input UVI variables and such), so I never really had time to do much here.

But now, I have a ton of free time (summer break from college, and I with just seven weeks til I go back, I can't really get a job), and I thought it would be cool to write about something other than the Sacramento River Cats, Midland RockHounds, Stockton Ports, and Kane County Cougars.

So here I am. But enough about that.

Earlier tonight, I finally got down to Nationals Park (the closest stadium to where I live) to watch a game.

The Nationals beat the Blue Jays 5-3 in 12 innings, as Ross Detwiler pitched a great game and Kip Wells, Joel Hanrahan, Mike MacDougal, Jesus Colome, and Julian Tavarez held down the fort just well enough (Wells and Hanrahan blew a 3-1 lead) to win the game.

But there's a problem.

Anyone who knows baseball knows the Nationals are a joke. Even with a four-game win streak, they stand at 20-46, easily the worst record in the game. They are a team that, going into the 2009 season, had no playoff hopes, and now will be lucky to win 60 games.

Yet the Nationals' bullpen consists of Wells, Hanrahan, MacDougal, Colome, Tavarez, Ron Villone, and Joe Beimel. The ages of those seven are: 32, 27, 32, 31, 36, 39, and 32. Only Beimel has been a consistently average or better reliever in recent years. Hanrahan showed promise in 2008, but he's lost his command this year.

Tavarez has stuck around in the majors for the last decade or so, but never in a high-leverage role. The other four have been up and down between Triple-A and the majors for virtually their entire careers. So why do they comprise the Nationals bullpen?

Well, that's something I can't understand.

I can understand having a veteran bullpen if you're a playoff-aspiring team; the Nationals are not. I can understand having a veteran bullpen if the relievers are good; these guys aren't.

I can understand having a veteran bullpen if you're trying to trade the veteran relievers for prospects later on; does anyone think Kip Wells or Ron Villone has trade value? What could the Nationals' motivation be?

Further mind-blowing (at least to me) is the fact that Washington has cycled through many other relievers this season, but they're the same sort: 31-year-old minor league vet (and decent MLB middle reliever '07-'08) Saul Rivera, 28-year-old command-challenged lefty Wil Ledezma, as well as some career minor league underachievers in their late 20s (Steven Shell, Mike Hinckley, Logan Kensing).

The only worthwhile experiment was Garrett Mock, a 26-year-old (the youngest pitcher employed in the bullpen for a rebuilding team) who had a promising 2008 but, like Hanrahan, couldn't find the strike zone this year.

Now, if you're familiar with my work at all, you probably know I'm about to dig up a bunch of minor league nobodies and say that the Nationals should replace their bullpen with them. And yes, that's what I'm going to do.

On a rebuilding team, it's important to use a year like this to evaluate your MLB-ready non-stars. By that, I mean that A) you don't want to throw away time and money on veterans like these (except Hanrahan and Mock; I'm going to advocate that they stay in the Nats' bullpen) but B) you don't want to rush your top prospects (Drew Storen/Stephen Strasburg/etc. in this case).

So what you do is take guys like Hanrahan and Mock, who are young enough that they'll still be close to their prime when the team is rebuilt (let's say 2013, when they'll be 31 and 30, respectively) and see if they can work their way into your future plans.

24-28 year-olds aren't going to get exponentially better, so you're not screwing up their development like you would if you rushed guys up from High-A or something.

So who should the Nationals use? Well, first, they should try to trade Villone, Colome, MacDougal, Wells, and Beimel. Beimel has some trade value (heck, you could certainly trade him for a 26-year-old Quad-A pitcher, probably two or three), and MacDougal and Villone's fluky sub-2.00 ERAs could perhaps deceive a desperate GM.

Obviously, if Washington can't trade one of them, they would then need to designate them for assignment, to make room for the following five pitchers:

J.D. Martin is the biggest no-brainer. The 26-year-old former Indians prospect is owning the International League, sporting a ridiculous 45/6 K/BB ratio in 65 innings that's given him a FIP (Fielding Independent ERA) of 2.78.

He would be a refreshing change from the command troubles of Hanrahan and Mock, and he clearly has big-league command. Furthermore, he's been doing this as a starter; in relief, pitchers typically shave about a run off their ERA, meaning we're talking a 1.78 AAA ERA pitcher.

Former Yankees prospect Tyler Clippard has a 2.91 FIP, although he's been pitching in relief. Clippard has a nice 2.73 K/BB ratio, and his stuff (low-90's heat, big 12-6 curve, average slider, average-plus changeup) plays well out of the bullpen.

I've wondered for three years why Clippard hasn't gotten much of a major league shake, although he does have a ghastly 6.53 FIP in 37.3 MLB innings.

But, like I said, I'm not saying these guys will do well; I'm saying they have nothing left to prove in the minors, so in a rebuilding year like this, you find out once and for all if these guys are major league players or not.

Marco Estrada hasn't looked that good superficially in AAA Syracuse this year (4.90 ERA), but his FIP is a run lower (3.94), and he's a starter, so with the one-run ERA adjustment (by the way, I'm not making that up, BP did an article analyzing the data last year, and they convinced me), we're talking a 2.94 ERA reliever.

Estrada ran into trouble in 12.7 big league innings last year (7.32 FIP), but the groundballer isn't likely to allow 4 homers in 12.7 innings again, and that was his only real issue in the majors (2.5 K/BB ratio). 

Now, those three are pretty easy, but along with Hanrahan and Mock, that makes five righties.

While the Nats have some other righties (Erik Arnesen, Zack Segovia, Cory Doyne) who fit the bill for these roles, they're best kept in Syracuse. If there's a big league injury or one of the five guys I've said struggles (give them 25-30 innings to figure it out, though; eight innings and six runs doesn't consitute "struggle" in my book), then you try these guys out.

Given that it's the NL, I feel like the style of play basically compels me to suggest two lefties for the final two slots.

The Nats aren't particularly deep with lefty upper-minors pitching, so perhaps the best bet is to trade Beimel for two Quad-A lefties (for example, Jay Marshall and Brad Kilby from my A's).

But I don't want to assume Billy Beane or any other GM would necessarily do anything, so in the event that Washington can't get a Quad-A lefty in a trade, I recommend that they call up 24-year-olds Justin Jones and Jack Spradlin from Double-A.

Jones' numbers aren't very good (5.13 Double-A FIP), but he's in the rotation and he has a big platoon split (3.23 FIP vs. lefties). This means Jones could possibly be an effective lefty specialist; he's at least as good as Mike Hinckley, who managed to throw 13.7 scoreless innings last September in the majors before imploding this season.

Spradlin is a groundballer with a 3.38 FIP in the Harrisburg bullpen. He doesn't have much of a platoon split, so he could be more of a multi-batter reliever.

Remember, Jones and Spradlin are a backup plan in case Villone, Beimel, Tavarez, Colome, and MacDougal can't combine to bring back two decent Quad-A lefties, an assumption which I'm pretty sure is false.

While Martin, Clippard, Estrada, Jones, and Spradlin may or may not be upgrades to the Washington bullpen, the point is that all five may or may not be MLB-caliber pitchers, and the time for the Nationals to evaluate these guys is now. Isn't that what rebuilding years are for?

Mike Rizzo and the Nats' front office apparently think a rebuilding year is the year where we once and for all find out if 39-year-old Ron Villone is going to be a major league hurler.

Whether Villone can still pitch or not (and the 11/12 K/BB ratio is a pretty strong "he can't"), he certainly will be irrelevant in 2013. At least these replacements have a chance at relevancy then, as they will all be in their peak years.

So, in short, I don't get the Nationals' bullpen construction at all, so much that I just wrote twice as much as I expected to about it. My alternative may not be great, but it at least makes sense. Any thoughts on this?


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