- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2008

VERO BEACH, Fla. — Chris Schroder would be a lock to make just about any bullpen in the major leagues.

A 29-year-old right-hander with a blazing fastball, a 2.83 career ERA in the minors, a 3.18 ERA in 37 big league appearances a year ago and 10 strikeouts in 52/3 relief innings this spring? Who wouldn’t give this guy a job?

Well, perhaps the Washington Nationals.

The Nationals have nothing against Schroder. They like his potential and are pleased with his performance and attitude.

They just don’t appear to have a spot for him.

Such is the state of the Washington bullpen, as deep a unit as there is in baseball. General manager Jim Bowden said the club probably will take seven relievers north at the end of the month. Six of those jobs are locked up: Closer Chad Cordero, right-handers Jon Rauch, Luis Ayala, Saul Rivera and Jesus Colome and left-hander Ray King.

The final spot? Well, perhaps Schroder had an outside chance at locking it down … until Joel Hanrahan took the mound Tuesday night in Lake Buena Vista and struck out eight of the 10 Atlanta Braves batters he faced.

“I don’t know how many guys are left in camp, but there’s probably eight or nine that could pitch out of the bullpen, and there’s only going to be seven going north,” Schroder said. “And guys like Chief, Rauch, Ayala — you know they’re going to make it. There might be some guys that don’t make it that deserve it.”

From the Nationals’ perspective, Its a good thing. A franchise that enters the final two weeks of training with no shortage of questions knows, if nothing else, its bullpen is in good shape.

No relief corps in major league history made more appearances than the 2007 Nationals (588) and no bullpen in franchise history pitched more innings (5902/3). The group’s collective 3.81 ERA ranked fourth in the National League; its 46 saves ranked third.

“We’re confident,” said Rauch, the workhorse setup man whose 173 appearances are tops in the majors the last two seasons. “I think if you go to any guy in the bullpen, we’re confident that we’re going to get the job done whenever we’re asked.”

Washington’s core group of relievers (Cordero, Rauch and Ayala) has remained intact for several years. Rivera, who posted a 3.68 ERA over 93 innings last season, has established his place. Colome (5-1, 3.82 ERA in 61 games) enjoyed a nice comeback year after collapsing in Tampa Bay. And King remains one of the sport’s most consistent left-handed specialists, having held lefty batters to a .161 average a year ago.

With those six pitchers all but assured of jobs when camp opened, there was perhaps only one remaining slot, which is now Hanrahan’s for the taking.

The 26-year-old right-hander was inconsistent as a rookie starter in 2007, issuing far too many walks despite an electric fastball. But the Nationals are giving him a chance to pitch in relief this spring for the first time in his career, and he has responded with aplomb.

In five exhibition appearances spanning 72/3 innings, Hanrahan has surrendered two hits and one walk while striking out 12. His three-inning performance Tuesday night against the Braves (in which he struck out seven straight batters, including stars Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira and Jeff Francoeur) remained a topic of discussion yesterday in the clubhouse.

“It was tremendous, just a great outing,” manager Manny Acta said. “The way he threw the ball, he had all his pitches, and the hitters he did it against, that’s what made it a lot better.”

Hanrahan was at first leery about moving to the bullpen after eight professional seasons as a starter. But he has since realized he might be better suited to this role.

“I’m not worried about trying to hit a corner, or if I walk a guy what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m just going out there throwing and not thinking about anything … and so far it’s working out.”

An afterthought when camp opened, Hanrahan now figures prominently in the Nationals’ roster discussions. Because he is out of options, the team can’t send him to the minor leagues without first exposing him to waivers. Given his spring training numbers, it’s doubtful he would pass through unclaimed.

“He’s one of the toughest decisions coming in, regardless of the outing from [Tuesday], because he’s a great arm you want to hang onto,” Acta said. “Sometimes you gotta make those types of tough decisions just to hang onto those arms. Stockpile them and do what’s best for the team, not only for this year, but for years to come.”

Which could spell trouble for Schroder, who despite his strong performances still has options, and that makes him a likely candidate to open the season at Class AAA Columbus.

“But at the same time, there’s still two weeks left, and something always happens when you least expect it,” he said. “Things happen: trades, injuries. You can’t worry about it. You just have to try to get yourself ready for the season and go from there.”

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