The Washington Times - March 22, 2011, 08:58PM

VIERA, Fla. — Most of the questions surrounding the Nationals bullpen have centered on who they will turn to in the ninth inning with the game on the line.

But first they’ll have to settle on the seven players who’ll make up their bullpen and the decision is one of the biggest ones they’ll have to make in the coming week.

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The candidates:

There are 11 possible candidates for the Nationals bullpen.

Right-handers:
Collin Balester
Brian Broderick
Tyler Clippard
Todd Coffey
Chad Gaudin
Elvin Ramirez
Henry Rodriguez
Craig Stammen
Drew Storen

Left-handers:
Sean Burnett
Doug Slaten

The “unsure” things:

The Nationals are going to keep Henry Rodriguez out of game action for a few days while he works on his mechanics in the bullpen with pitching coach Steve McCatty. Rodriguez, who came over in the Josh Willingham trade and is out of options, hasn’t pitched in a game since Thursday and told manager Jim Riggleman that his mechanics feel off.

Rodriguez throws extremely hard — we saw fastballs that hit 98 and 99 mph on Thursday against the Braves — but has problems with his control. In just three appearances (2.1 innings) he’s only thrown 14 of his 27 pitches for strikes and threw just seven strikes out of 20 pitches in his first two outings combined. He also arrived to camp late due to visa issues, missing an integral first few weeks of workouts.

“(McCatty) is really trying to just get bullpen work with him,” Riggleman said. “Get his mechanics to the point where he’s more consistently throwing strikes. We’ve really slowed that down… his work is going to be primarily in the bullpen, side sessions for a few more days, and hopefully we can work him back in there in plenty of time.”

Rule V pick Elvin Ramirez is going through a shoulder rehab program and is doing some long toss right now, general manager Mike Rizzo said today. Most likely, Ramirez will start the season on the disabled list. Rizzo said Ramirez could throw some light bullpen sessions soon.

The “sure” things:

Burnett and Slaten are in. First of all, being the only two left-handed relievers left in camp, there was little chance they’d be excluded. That being said, Burnett has unquestionably been the Nationals’ best reliever in camp and Slaten has been solid all spring.

Burnett has allowed just five hits all spring and has yet to give up an earned run. If the season started tomorrow, my money would be on Burnett being the first guy to get a save opportunity, a challenge he said today he’d welcome. However he’s used (the Nationals could need to use their best reliever in the seventh inning, for example) expect Burnett to get plenty of work.

Slaten has been consistent, with a 2.79 ERA in 9.2 innings, and posted his fifth straight scoreless outing on Tuesday.

The long reliever:

Assuming Tom Gorzelanny wins the spot as the Nationals’ fifth starter, Chad Gaudin and Brian Broderick look to make the team as long relievers. Gaudin hasn’t pitched in a major league game since March 10 but has been solid in his minor league appearances. He’s a great option for the Nationals out of the bullpen and would provide insurance for a spot start whenever needed. He’d also almost certainly be wanted on another team should he become available so there’s a very, very slim chance he’d make it through waivers to an assignment in the minor leagues.

Broderick, the Nationals’ Rule V pick from the Cardinals, has done everything necessary to make the team. Primarily a starter in St. Louis’ minor league system, Broderick has done well in a relief role this spring and has allowed just one earned run in 12.2 innings of work for a 0.71 ERA. He’s pitched on back-to-back days, he’s gone more than one inning and, most importantly, he’s been effective getting major league hitters out.

The ones with a “proven track record”:

Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Todd Coffey fall into this category. While Clippard and Storen are the two relievers with the highest ERAs in camp, they were also  two of the Nationals top four most-used pitchers last year. Clippard took the ball a team-high 78 times, while Storen, who wasn’t called up until mid May, appeared in 54. They both also held down ERAs under 4 (3.58 for Storen, 3.07 for Clippard).

Riggleman said on Tuesday that what Clippard and Storen did for the team last year wouldn’t easily be forgotten — and would figure into any decisions the team makes about this year’s opening day roster.

Coffey, a six-year veteran, appeared in 147 games the last two years with a combined 3.83 ERA. He’s a veteran presence in a bullpen that’s shaping up to have a lot of young arms, he excels in the late-innings and he could easily fill the closer role for the Nationals if needed.

The possible victims of a “numbers crunch”:

This leaves Collin Balester and Craig Stammen on the outside looking in.

In Balester’s case, the only thing working against him is the fact that the right-hander has an option remaining. There’s not much Balester could have done better this spring. In 9.1 innings he’s allowed just two earned runs off six hits and two walks with 10 strikeouts.

His one inning on Tuesday was his sixth straight scoreless appearance this spring.

“I worked hard this offseason to build off what I did the year before,” Balester said. “The importance of throwing strikes and letting the hitters hit good pitches, instead of trying to be all over the place.”

“I feel good,” he added. “I feel like I’m a major league pitcher and that goes a long way.”

Unfortunately for Stammen, his two options remaining also work against him in much the same way. While Stammen has really only had two rough outings this spring and has a decent 4.15 ERA to this point, he’s moslty looked at as a long reliever and that role is more likely to be filled by Gaudin or Broderick, at least at the season’s start.

 — So that leaves the Nationals with a seven-man bullpen of Gaudin, Broderick, Clippard, Coffey, Storen, Burnett and Slaten. Things could change — and my predictions certainly could be wrong — but that’s the way things look right now.

I’m comfortable with the bullpen as of right now,” said general manager Mike Rizzo. “This is spring training, it’s spring training for a reason. These guys are preparing themselves for the regular season and my opinion of our bullpen going into opening day hasn’t changed a bit. I still feel we have a productive bullpen and I like the guys we have.”