Nationals need to be creative to solve their bullpen problems

In 2009, the Nationals drafted a guy named Stephen Strasburg with the first overall pick. Nine picks later, they selected a guy named Drew Storen, a relief pitcher from Stanford* with the idea he could make the major leagues quickly and become a closer.

I always hated that pick, and not because I expected Storen to blow two playoff series and otherwise be a head case and malcontent. I simply think 1st round picks should be “high ceiling” selections and relievers are inherently volitile and unpredictable who live very short MLB shelf lives. A good rule of thumb: if you can’t imagine the guy winning multiple Cy Young or MVP awards, don’t pick him. 

At the same time the Nationals were drafting Strasburg and Storen, another young pitcher started 24 games just up the road in Frederick, VA. His name was Zach Britton and he was the best reliever in baseball last season. Britton was drafted as a starter and worked his way through the Orioles farm system. He even started 46 games in MLB as such. In 2014, the Orioles permenantly gave up on him as a starting pitcher and a bullpen star was accidentally born. 

Twenty-five picks after Storen, the Orioles selected a young shortstop named Mychal Givens, who was converted to a relief pitcher in 2013 after a few offensively challenged seasons as a position player. Givens is now a very effective reliever in the Orioles bullpen right along side Britton. 

The two teams’ approaches to relief pitcher development couldn’t be more different. The Nats tend to pigeonhole their pitchers into two categories of relievers and starters. Aaron Barrett started zero games above the New York-Pennsylvania league (low A). Koda Glover didn’t start any. Same with Storen. Treinen and Solis both started games in the minors, but were converted to the bullpen relatively quickly in the majors. Meanwhile, starting pitching prospects often come and go without a stop in the bullpen. Some are “blocked” in AAA because there’s no “room” on the major league roster (AJ Cole, Taylor Hill, Austin Voth, and ironically Jacob Turner who was drafted the pick before Drew Storen in 2009). Some are traded away because the Nats can afford to trade their starting pitching “depth” (Reynoldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito, Nate Karns).  

The Nationals have struggled this season to find enough reliable arms to fill their bullpen. Last offseason, they were priced out of (or priced themelves out of) free agent options that might have helped like Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen. This requires the team to be more creative. Perhaps continuing to pigeonhole pitchers as “starters” and “relievers” is part of the problem. Zach Britton didn’t become Zach Britton until the Orioles threw up their hands and gave him a shot in the bullpen. Same with Andrew Miller, a former starter who the Red Sox converted to a reliever in 2012. The Nats may be tempted to look far and wide for bullpen solutions, but the answer might be right in front of them. 

* the original version of this post said that Drew Storen went to LSU, not Stanford. I am an idiot. Carry on. 

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All 12 Nationals Home Openers ranked from worst to best

12. 2010 – The Nats are blown out 11-1 by the Phillies. Worse, the stadium was filled with Phillies fans thanks, in part, to Stan Kastan’s policy of selling block tickets to out of town fans before individual tickets went on sale to the public. Coming off two horrific seasons in 2008 and 2009, there’s a good argument this day was the low point in Nationals history.

11. 2009 – The Nats entered the game 0-6 and left the game 0-7 after losing to the defending champion Phillies, 9-8. By the time this game ended we were all on notice that the 2009 season would be just as painful as 2008. One bright spot: Christian Guzman went five for five.

10. 2011 – It was cold. It wasn’t even April yet. Livan Hernandez turns in a quality performance in his last opening day start. But the Nats lose a lackluster 2-0 game to the Braves.

9. 2007 – The last opening day at RFK. John Patterson got rocked and the Nationals lost 9-2 to Dontrelle Willis and the Marlins. It was an inauspicious start to the beginning of the Manny Acta era.

8. 2006 – Everything about the home opener in 2006 was a little bit of a bummer. The team was already 2-5 on their way to 91 losses. Opening Day starter Ramon Ortiz gave up four runs and the Nats lost 7-1 to a superior Mets team. The excitement of the previous years home opener had already started to wear off. Can anyone name the leadoff hitter from the home opener in 2006? Anyone? Brandon Watson.

7. 2014 – Not great weather as the Nats lose 2-1 to the Braves in part due to the Justin Upton ground rule double fiasco. The loss wouldn’t be nearly as bad if it didn’t breathe more life into the annoying “the Nats can’t beat the Braves” narrative.

6. 2016 — Tanner Roark had a rough day. After giving up 3 runs to the Marlins in the first inning, he didn’t make it more than 4 innings.  The Nationals scored 3 runs in the first inning too, which was cool, but they didn’t do much more than that.  Bryce Harper hit his 4th opening day home run, which is becoming a fun trend.  The Nats lost 6-4.

5. 2015 – The game started well. Great weather. Bryce Harper homering in his second at bat. Max Scherzer beginning his Nats career with 5 shutout innings. Unfortunately, a critical miscommunication between Dan Uggla and Ian Desmond on a routine pop-up opened the door to some Mets runs and the Nats bats were silenced by Bartolo Colon and the Mets bullpen (including recently traded Jerry Blevins). It was a foreshadow to a disappointing 2015 season. The Nats lost 3-1.

4. 2012 – Nationals win a 3-2 walk off against the Reds in the 10th inning after a blown save by closer Brad Lidge (spoiling a nice start by Gio Gonzalez). The win moved the Nats record to 5-2 to start the season. After quality end to 2011, we started to get the feeling that the Nationals were actually playoff contenders.

3. 2008 – The first game at Nats Park. The excitement of a new stadium puts this game high on the list. But Ryan Zimmerman’s walk off homerun in the 9th inning puts it higher. Unfortunately the temperature dropped steadily throughout the game. By the time Zim hit his homer, the stadium was half empty and freezing. Also, while the Opening Night walkoff provided a signature moment for the new stadium, nobody in that park thought the Nats would be contenders that season dampening some of the enthusiasm.

2. 2013 – Almost everything about Opening Day 2013 was perfect. Bryce Harper hit the first two good pitches he saw out of the ballpark. Stephen Strasburg nearly threw a shutout. And the game was over in record time. That season didn’t turn out as planned but on that day it looked like the Nats would be cruising to their second straight National League East title.

1. 2005 – This will be #1 forever. Everything was perfect. The President threw out the first pitch (and didn’t bounce it). Livan Hernandez threw a gem. Vinny Castilla almost hit for the cycle (thanks Lance Cormier). The stands were bouncing. Most importantly professional baseball was back in Washington DC.  It’ll never get better than Opening day 2005.