- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | In his first two springs as the Washington Nationals‘ manager, Manny Acta rarely faced questions - from the media or from himself - about his bullpen. The Nationals might not have known how many leads they would have or where they would come from, but they knew games would be salted away, in order, by Luis Ayala or Saul Rivera, Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero.

But through the course of last season, that haven was removed, piece by piece. Cordero’s arm gave out. Rauch did an admirable job as the fill-in closer, then the team traded him to Arizona in July. Ayala lost his confidence and the command of his sinking fastball. The Nationals shipped him out in August.

Only Rivera survived as a viable late-inning option, and even he endured stretches of ineffectiveness.

This spring, the Nationals are trying to rebuild a bullpen out of converted starters, gifted young arms and few sure things. Gone are the days when relief jobs were almost impossible to secure; in fact, the bullpen might now have the most openings of any facet of the team.

“We were spoiled for a few years, having Cordero and Rauch at the back end and Ayala,” Acta said. “Now it’s rebuilding time for our bullpen, opportunities for those guys or just get creative. But those jobs are up for grabs.”

Unless they acquire another reliever, Washington will spend the rest of the spring trying to unearth seventh- and eighth-inning options, while one-time starting prospects become long relievers. Out of all that uncertainty, the Nationals hope competition will produce a foundation.

“I hope that when I leave spring, I’ll have an eighth-inning guy,” Acta said. “We’ve still got a lot of games to play, and there are a lot of guys out there in the free agent market. We hope we can leave camp with an eighth-inning guy.”

That could turn out to be Ryan Wagner, one of a few reclamation projects who could form the framework of the Nationals’ bullpen this season.

The 26-year-old might be one of the Nationals’ most intriguing in-house options for a seventh-inning or setup slot. He didn’t pitch in the majors last season while recovering from a torn labrum but said his arm is as strong this spring as it has been since 2004.

He will be the last reliever to throw against the Mets on Wednesday, and though it remains to be seen whether Wagner can summon the low-90s velocity he had before the injury, he would seem like a front-runner to make the team as a late-inning reliever.

“I’ve been there before,” Wagner said. “I’ve got some time in the big leagues. I’ve had some success. I just feel that if I’m healthy, the next thing is to compete at the big league level. This is a bullpen that has a lot of young guys in it, and I feel like I could help that bullpen out in a number of different ways.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Jason Bergmann, who is trying to construct a second phase of his career in the bullpen after washing out as a starter.

He was moved to the bullpen on two occasions last year, and his best chance to make the team this season appears to be as a long reliever.

He’s approaching the spring the same way as he always has - drilling mechanics, trying to develop his change-up - but with the realization that he will have to tailor that preparation to a role that’s probably not the one he prefers.

“You have so few chances as a reliever,” Bergmann said. “You don’t want to get beat on a pitch you’re not comfortable with.”

In between Bergmann and Wagner, there are fringe signings (Wil Ledezma, Gary Glover), promising prospects getting a look as relievers (Garrett Mock, Shairon Martis), one-time prospects whose only shot is out of the bullpen (Mike Hinckley, Steven Shell) and, just for good measure, a Rule 5 pick the Nationals won’t keep unless he makes the team out of the bullpen (Terrell Young).

Somewhere in that mix, the Nationals will have to find a few options who can turn into their next bullpen mainstays.

“I think the biggest thing is being able to get over your surroundings, being able to get past the night before,” Wagner said. “It’s not just the minor leagues anymore, where a lot of times guys are on schedules. You don’t really pitch every other day. You’re actually given a day to get over your outing in front of 5,000 fans. Instead [in the majors], you may be in there the next day, and it’s the same situation against the same hitters, and you have to perform in front of 50,000. You’ve got to be able to throw your exact same stuff. You have to have that confidence because guys up there will eat you alive.”

The only way to cull out that confidence in the spring is competition.

“The only locks are Saul and [Joel] Hanrahan,” Bergmann said. “You’ve got some time here to make the team.”

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