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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