- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Until last week, the Washington Nationals were set to decamp next month to the master-planned communities and chain restaurants of Viera, Fla., for spring training with a startling absence of dramatics.

Unlike last spring, there aren’t incessant questions about where Bryce Harper will open the season, the health of Adam LaRoche’s left shoulder or Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit to obsess over.

Instead, general manager Mike Rizzo added fleet (and inexpensive) outfielder Denard Span and able right-hander Dan Haren to the club that won 98 games in 2012 and, at least on paper, is devoid of significant questions or position battles. All you wondered, really, was how many wins this group could pile up.

Enter Rafael Soriano.

A 33-year-old outfielder-turned-reliever once traded for the disaster-prone left arm of Horacio Ramirez is an unusual place to find drama. That’s exactly what the Nationals got when they unexpectedly gave him $28 million over two years (including a vesting option for a third season) and surrendered their first-round draft pick to bolster a bullpen already jammed with hard-throwing, effective relievers.

The move may have elicited head-scratching in Washington — why did the Nationals need another back-end arm with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen onboard? — along with the predictable flood of conspiracy theories around Soriano’s agent, Scott Boras, and his fruitful dealings with the team. But not only does the hard-throwing Soriano give the Nationals perhaps baseball’s top relief corps, the man who saved 42 games for the New York Yankees last season creates an irresistible spring storyline.

How will manager Davey Johnson fit together the pieces in his suddenly crowded bullpen?

Start with the lonely, stomach churning moments on the Nationals Park mound in the final innings of Game 5 of the National League Division Series last October. Clippard, who saved 32 games, surrendered a home run in the eighth. Then, of course, Drew Storen jogged in to Five Finger Death Punch’s “Bad Company” and had the St. Louis Cardinals down to their season’s final strike before they scored four times. The game and season lurched to an end.

That moment’s emotion — the Nationals’ clubhouse prepared for a champagne celebration, after leading by as many as six runs, that never came — is difficult to separate from Soriano’s signing. So, too, is the perception the team’s bullpen wore down in the season’s second half, burdened by Strasburg’s limit after Tommy John surgery and the quick hook on Jordan Zimmermann in his second full season the same procedure.

That doesn’t hold up against the numbers, though. Yes, Clippard scuffled in the second half, but the bullpen’s earned-run average, strikeouts per nine innings and walks didn’t shift much from the season’s first half in only two fewer innings.

Soriano’s arm is a luxury, one teams with the depth and payroll flexibility the Nationals boast can afford. They’re serious about a deep postseason run and the bullpen was the last area on the roster with space for any sort of significant upgrade. “Strengthen a strength” is how Rizzo described the move. That’s a far cry from, say, 2009 when Mike MacDougal, Jason Bergmann and Ron Villone formed the less-than-imposing back end of the Nationals’ bullpen and more evidence of how far the franchise has come.

Even Soriano’s money isn’t as daunting as it appears. Half of the $28 million is deferred. And the Nationals had space after not re-signing Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny, John Lannan and Chien-Ming Wang while dealing Michael Morse. They combined to earn $17.25 million in 2012.

One thing is clear: The ninth inning now belongs to Soriano, who was converted to a pitcher years ago in the Seattle Mariners system and has pitched in nine postseason games.

Where does that leave Clippard and Storen? Both own extensive closing experience. Storen, as competitive as any person you’ll meet, whether playing “Call of Duty” or throwing sliders, craves the pressure of finishing games. Clippard, with 224 appearances and an All-Star game in the last three seasons, is more laid back. With the ninth inning handed to Soriano, they’re left as setup men and Johnson is left to manage a potentially delicate situation that, before last week, appeared as straightforward as the rest of the roster.

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