- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

As the foundations of a bullpen formed around him in spring training, Joel Hanrahan stood as the most secure reliever in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse.

The 27-year-old had been named the team’s closer in the last two months of the 2008 season, converted nine of 12 save chances and entered 2009 with no real competition. He went to the World Baseball Classic knowing he would be the undisputed closer on Opening Day.

Asked in spring training what the team would do if Hanrahan faltered as the closer, manager Manny Acta couldn’t detail a line of succession.

“We’re going to have to mix and match,” Acta said. “We said it when we came to spring training last year. We could say it’s [Chad] Cordero. If he fails, it’s going to be [Jon] Rauch. If Rauch fails, it’s going to be [Luis] Ayala, up until Hanrahan took over. So that’s a big challenge for us this year.”

He also said: “Ready or not, he’s getting [the job].”

At the time it was accepted as a side effect of the team spending all of its energy groping for solutions for a remade bullpen amongst farmhands and retreads. The Nationals passed on the crop of veteran relievers available in free agency the previous winter largely on the belief that a young team shouldn’t be spending money on such luxuries as a proven closer.

Having no option other than Hanrahan was simply a cost of doing business. Now it’s looking like a crack in the plan for the future.

Hanrahan was removed from the closer’s role for the second time this season Saturday after giving up two runs in the 10th inning of Friday’s 3-1 loss to the New York Mets. Acta and Hanrahan differed on how the pitcher approached the inning; Acta thought Hanrahan needed to trust more in his 95 mph fastball than his slider, while the right-hander felt he threw the fastball enough and simply made good pitches that got hit by good hitters.

But that outing was a microcosm of Hanrahan’s struggles all year. After giving up a grand slam in a 13-11 loss to the Phillies in April - the game that precipitated his first removal from the closer’s role - Hanrahan said a fear of giving up a home run was part of the reason he wound up walking Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth before surrendering the decisive blow to Raul Ibanez.

Some in the front office have questioned whether Hanrahan has the confidence to be a closer, and now that he’s lost the role twice, it’s difficult to imagine he’ll regain it unless he undergoes something of a mental makeover.

And beyond Hanrahan, who is there in the organization that projects as a future big league closer? Garrett Mock’s name has been mentioned, but he struggled mightily this year in the majors and is back to starting at Class AAA Syracuse. Zech Zinicola, who has a 1.77 ERA and five saves at Class AA Harrisburg, also has come up as a possible option.

But with either one of those two, the organization is back to hoping an unproven closer can jump into the late-inning role and thrive.

The Nationals will have some money to spend this offseason, but they’re still not in a position to splurge on a closer, unless they decide the bullpen was the only thing keeping them from being competitive this year. Even then, the crop of free agent relievers is littered with 30-something options who aren’t going to come cheap - Atlanta’s Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano and Houston’s Jose Valverde probably offering the best mix of youth and value among that group.

Washington’s best option might be to acquire a reliever through a trade, such as Boston’s Manny Delcarmen, whose name came up in trade rumors last month but appears to be staying put for now. The Nationals will have some pieces to unload (Nick Johnson chief among them) this July, and they could get a reliever or two in return.

Right now, though, even the best options are mostly based on conjecture. The one the Nationals pinned their hopes on this season hasn’t come through, and that’s becoming a bigger blow than they were prepared to deal with.

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