- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

CLEARWATER, Fla. | When the Washington Nationals convened in Florida seven weeks ago, manager Manny Acta said only two relievers were guaranteed jobs - Joel Hanrahan and Saul Rivera.

When they departed Florida late Thursday afternoon after a long and arduous spring, only one other Nationals reliever could claim to have ensured a spot on the roster: Joe Beimel.

Not even a longer spring training than usual could help Washington settle its unsettled bullpen. Ten relievers were on the team’s charter flight Thursday night from Tampa, Fla., to Norfolk. Only seven will return to Florida on Sunday in advance of the season opener the following day against the Marlins.

For those pitchers on the bubble, these can be tense days. Their lives essentially hang in the balance. Cars, clothes and family members must be moved to their new bases for the season, if only they knew where that is. Some, though, refuse to let it consume their every thought.

“You ask anybody in here where they want to go to start the season and they’ll say the big leagues,” right-hander Garrett Mock said. “But for me, I’d drive myself crazy if I tried to figure it out.”

The final decisions facing Acta and acting general manager Mike Rizzo essentially boil down to three factors:

• They need to keep at least one of two left-handers (Mike Hinckley or Wil Ledezma).

• They need to keep at least one long man who can churn out innings if a starter gets knocked out (Julian Tavarez and Jason Bergmann best fit that description).

• They have to take into account which relievers are out of options (Hinckley and Steven Shell) and which ones can still be sent to the minors without risk of losing them (Bergmann and Mock).

“It’s going to come down to numbers and the option game,” Acta said.

Spring training performances also have to be taken into consideration, which would give an edge to Bergmann (0.00 ERA in 11 1/3 innings), Jesus Colome (0.90 ERA in 10 innings) and Ledezma (1.69 ERA in 10 2/3 innings).

Then again, sometimes the numbers can be misleading. Hinckley’s ERA stands at 6.52, but that’s a product of two rough appearances in which he surrendered all seven of his earned runs. He hasn’t been scored upon in his last six games.

“I started rocky, but I think it got progressively better,” the lefty said. “I’m pretty pumped about that.”

For young pitchers including Hinckley, Mock and Shell, who all made their major league debuts last season, this is a new experience. They still have a gleam in their eye and a smile on their face while other teammates seem to be sweating out these last few days.

“This my first time being in camp this late,” Mock said. “I’m still enjoying every second. If I get optioned, that’s their decision. I’ll go down to Triple-A and do the same thing I do here until they think the time’s right.”

Two other right-handers don’t factor into Washington’s immediate bullpen plans but could come into play down the road. Rookie Terrell Young, the first pick in last winter’s Rule 5 draft, hasn’t pitched well - and hasn’t pitched at all in more than a week because of a sore shoulder. The club must decide whether to offer him back to the Cincinnati Reds or else work out a deal to keep him in the system.

And on Tuesday the Nationals learned veteran Jorge Sosa was granted a work visa after staying in his native Dominican Republic all spring. Sosa, who signed a minor league contract in December, won’t have enough time to crack the Opening Day roster, but he could be an option later if he pitches well at extended spring training.

Despite the many questions that still face his club so close to the start of the season, Acta said he feels much more comfortable about the state of his bullpen now than he did seven weeks ago. He points to the signing of Beimel to a $2 million contract on March 18 as a turning point that had a domino effect on the rest of the group.

“It was very, very worrisome to think about our bullpen earlier,” Acta said. “I think people really underestimate how much difference one guy can make. The addition of Beimel has just really helped us big-time.”

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