Tyler Clippard remembers it well, the bullpen that birthed his All-Star relief career. It was horrible.
“When I came in, in 2009, it was the worst bullpen in the league,” Clippard said. “There’s no real way to sugarcoat that.”
Ron Villone, Jason Bergmann, Mike MacDougal, Joe Beimel and Julian Tavarez were the only relievers with more appearances than Clippard that year, and he wasn’t called up until late June. They allowed a National League-worst 5.40 runs per game. As relievers.
As Clippard recalls that bullpen, he looks down a row of lockers in the Nationals’ clubhouse that contains only two holdovers from that relief corps. Sean Burnett, acquired that June in the trade that sent Joel Hanrahan to Pittsburgh, and Ross Detwiler, who pitched in relief once that season.
The jerseys that hang there now are different. They drape the shoulders of pitchers far more talented than most who made up that 2009 unit and with plenty more pedigree. Gone is the haphazard collection of retreads, replaced with a stockpile of power arms at its back end that could rival any in the major leagues.
The Nationals bolstered their starting pitching staff this winter but the bullpen remained largely unchanged, save for the addition of Brad Lidge. And while the rotation, with the return of Stephen Strasburg as well as the additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, stole all the offseason headlines, the murmur around this Nationals bullpen is that it could be elite.
“Shoot,” said Lidge, glancing over at Tom Gorzelanny. “I mean, the way things are going, even the long relievers in our bullpen are going to be filthy.”
Nationals closer Drew Storen will start the 2012 season on the disabled list, the result of elbow joint inflammation and strep throat pushing back his preparation until time had run too short. And somehow, with a loss that may have once crippled them, the team can hold the dam until welcoming Storen back. Lidge will share closing duties with Henry Rodriguez, who’s been the Nationals’ most dominant reliever this spring having added impeccable command to his electric stuff. Clippard will remain in his invaluable role and Ryan Mattheus will slide into Storen’s spot on the roster for the time being.
“It’s a great dynamic we have now,” Clippard said. “[If one pitcher can’t go], you don’t really feel like you’re letting the team down because you know that there’s other guys who are going to step in and do just as good as you are.”
But as the Nationals stand on the precipice of their most anticipated season, their relief corps having allowed less than one hit per inning as a group this spring, that 2009 unit should be remembered for more than just its atrocious stats.
Without it, perhaps the Nationals never commit to converting Clippard to a reliever and develop him into one of the best in the game. Perhaps they don’t trade for Burnett or Rodriguez or even Mattheus. Perhaps the opportunity to assemble the talent they have now — anchored by Storen, a 2009 draftee — never presents itself.
“You could sit here and say three years ago when Clip got here, because we knew we were short in the bullpen we decided to make him a reliever,” said pitching coach Steve McCatty. “And because we were so bad he got the opportunity to get here and prove himself.”
Earlier this spring, Lidge got himself in a bit of hot water with his former fanbase, the one 130 miles to the northeast, when he called the Nationals “probably the most talented team I’ve ever been on.” He chuckled a few weeks later when the minifirestorm was brought up, but didn’t take back his assessment. He’s been a part of bullpens, the star of bullpens, that won pennants and World Series. He thinks the Nationals have the right mix.
“There’s just a lot of power arms back there — and it’s not guys that are just getting called up,” Lidge said. “It’s guys that have a couple years under their belt now, kind of start to know what they’re doing.”
Last year, the Nationals’ bullpen ranked seventh in the National League, the progress from two seasons before marked by allowing 1.41 fewer runs per game than their 2009 predecessors. The next step could be the biggest.