For all that they need to overhaul about their ballclub — both at the major league and minor league level — it is perhaps most surprising that one of the Washington Nationals‘ most glaring needs is in the bullpen.
The Nationals knew all along they were lacking a power hitter in the middle of their lineup. And they realized they were short on middle infielders throughout their farm system.
But it would have been difficult to foresee general manager Jim Bowden standing by the dugout at Wrigley Field on Sunday making a statement like this: “We’re in a situation where we have to completely rebuild a bullpen from scratch.”
If Bowden felt confident about any aspect of his team heading into 2008, it was his relief corps, one of the deepest and most reliable corps in the majors since the club arrived in the District three years ago.
With Chad Cordero firmly entrenched as closer, bolstered by steadfast setup men like Jon Rauch, Luis Ayala and Saul Rivera and veterans like Ray King and Jesus Colome, Washington had no reason to be concerned about its bullpen.
But then Cordero complained of right shoulder pain on Opening Night, a twinge that ultimately led to major surgery to repair a torn labrum, and disaster ensued.
“I think if you start the year the way that we did, losing your closer on Day 1 of the season, that just kind of caused a domino effect,” manager Manny Acta said.
Indeed, everyone from the group was forced to take on a new role. And though some — like Rauch and Rivera — were successful, the overall effect was debilitating. Ayala, once as effective a setup man as there was in the sport, lost all semblance of his previous form and the confidence of his manager. King, the long left-hander out of the bunch, got off to a bad start and was released by the end of April. And Colome never found the groove that made him the surprise of the 2007 bullpen.
With his team going nowhere this season and Rauch’s value as high as it ever was going to get, Bowden traded his fill-in closer to the Arizona Diamondbacks for second baseman Emilio Bonifacio. The move addressed one of Washington’s biggest concerns — adding a young middle infielder — but it did further damage to a bullpen that already was struggling.
A few weeks later, Ayala was dealt to the New York Mets for another young infielder, Anderson Hernandez, leaving the Nationals with a current relief corps of seven men anonymous to all but the most ardent of pitching observers.
Joel Hanrahan, a hard-throwing starter all his life until he was converted to a reliever this spring, is now the closer. His setup men are Rivera, who remains reliable, and fellow right-hander Steven Shell, a one-time starter in the Angels’ farm system who now finds himself as a major league reliever pitching in crucial situations.
Manning, a 29-year-old rookie, is the left-handed specialist. Colome remains from the initial group but hasn’t been effective enough to be used in situations of much consequence. And the unit is rounded out by two rookies, Garrett Mock and Marco Estrada, considered among the Nationals’ top starting prospects getting thrown into the fray as relievers.
It wasn’t necessarily the organization’s original plan to use all those young starters as relievers. But given the relative success of Washington’s rotation and the alteration made to the bullpen, this is now the plan for the rest of the season.
“We need to build a bullpen,” Acta said. “We can’t just fit every one of our prospects in our starting rotation. So we’re also going to see some of them out of the ‘pen and see if those guys can take over for the guys that left. … We have to find out which of those guys can be in the rotation for good and which ones are going to fit in out of the bullpen.”
It is an inherently difficult transition from starter to reliever, and some of the Nationals’ young pitchers are experiencing that right now.