- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2009

One month in, it doesn’t take much brainpower to figure out what has plagued the Washington Nationals most in 2009. Take away some wretched relief pitching, and the Nationals could be described as adequate instead of downright hideous.

It’s not a stretch. Washington already has managed to lose five games in which it either led or was tied entering the ninth inning, a staggering number of collapses for this early juncture of the season.

Those bullpen meltdowns have drawn the ire of fans, the media, front office members, coaches, the manager and anyone else who has caught even a glimpse of this team. All are aghast at how the Nationals’ relief corps could be so bad.

But everyone should have seen this coming.

What was Washington’s biggest area of concern heading into spring training? The bullpen. “That’s going to be the toughest challenge,” manager Manny Acta said way back on Feb. 15.

Remember how many relievers were guaranteed jobs at the time? Two: Joel Hanrahan and Saul Rivera. Everything else was up for grabs, and Hanrahan - though handed the closer’s job - didn’t exactly have much of a track record in the role.

Acta, though, had no choice but to hand those two right-handers jobs, given what else he had to work with. The Nationals’ other relief options at that point were the likes of Garrett Mock, Steven Shell, Gary Glover, Mike Hinckley, Jesus Colome, Ryan Wagner, Wil Ledezma and others with little pedigree.

The blame for that, as far as plenty of members of the Nationals organization are concerned, goes to former general manager Jim Bowden. It was Bowden who failed to acquire any major league relievers during the offseason - after losing his top three bullpen arms of 2008.

It’s easy to forget just how good the Washington bullpen was for most of the franchise’s first four years in town. With Chad Cordero closing and Jon Rauch and Luis Ayala setting him up, this team had one of the most reliable relief corps in baseball.

“I’m finding out right now how tough life is without them,” Acta said this past weekend.

All three are gone, and the reasons for their departures were legitimate. Cordero blew out his shoulder and still isn’t back pitching. Rauch was one of the organization’s few tradeable commodities and was sent to Arizona for Emilio Bonifacio, who later was dealt to Florida for Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham. Ayala was ineffective and a malcontent, leading to his trade to the New York Mets for Anderson Hernandez.

Most members of the Nationals organization don’t fault Bowden for making those moves, but plenty don’t understand why the ex-GM didn’t make more of an effort to restock his bullpen during the winter.

Mike Rizzo inherited the mess when Bowden resigned March 1 and wasted little time trying to remedy the problem. All but one player he has acquired since taking over as acting GM have been relief pitchers: Joe Beimel, Julian Tavarez, Kip Wells, Ron Villone and Mike MacDougal (the latter two at Class AAA Syracuse). Catcher Josh Bard is the lone exception.

Aside from Beimel, those were patchwork moves, journeyman veterans who could help hold the bullpen together when younger teammates faltered. Which is precisely what has happened.

Few expect those new members of the committee of closers to thrive in the next five months. And the likelihood of a significant addition to the group via trade is slim at this point.

Which means the Nationals, for better or worse, are going to have to make do with the bullpen they have. They can complain, fret and question how this came to be, but they can’t do anything now but look forward and hope this glaring offseason oversight doesn’t destroy an entire season.

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