- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2015


Never fall in love with a relief pitcher — unless his name is Mariano Rivera.

Who knows? Maybe Tyler Clippard will wind up being the Mariano Rivera of set up men coming out of the bullpen. But $9 million for an eighth-inning pitcher is a luxury the Washington Nationals can’t afford, so the popular reliever was traded last week to the Oakland Athletics for infielder Yunel Escobar, as Washington general manager Mike Rizzo continues to battle the payroll beast.

The Lerner family is going to keep this team’s payroll in the $140 million neighborhood — an upscale, if not luxury, neighborhood.

In order to do that, you can’t be paying the setup reliever $9 million, what Clippard is seeking in arbitration, and not when you have two ace starting pitchers and a three-time Silver Slugging shortstop facing free agency after the 2015 season — and hope to keep any of them.

Remember, yesterday’s failed starting pitching prospect is tomorrow’s ace reliever. See Clippard.

Clippard had been a starter — a bad one — in the New York Yankees system since he was drafted in 2003. By the time 2007 came around, he was an afterthought, traded to Washington for relief pitcher Jonathan Albaledejo. And it wasn’t until two years later, after a conversation with Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty, that Clippard moved to the bullpen — and a Nats star was born.

Fans fall in love with relief pitchers because, besides the starting pitcher’s walk from the bullpen to the dugout before the game after warming up, relievers are the only players on the team that make a grand entrance — and often in dramatic conditions. No one made a grander entrance than Clippard, with his goggles and long-legged show horse strut. He connected with a fan base still learning how to fall in love with a baseball team.

But remember, so did Chad Cordero. So did Joey Eischen. Relievers are often shooting stars — here and gone. Others come along.

It’s up to Rizzo to find one.

Maybe he already did — another afterthought.

Blake Treinen came to Washington as a supporting cast player in the Michael Morse three-way trade to Seattle that brought Nationals pitching prospect A.J. Cole back to Washington from Oakland, along with reliever Ian Krol. Treinen worked both as a starter and reliever last season, back and forth between Washington and Triple-A Syracuse, but when Rizzo saw Treinen in spring training last year, he knew he had something special.

He posted good numbers last year when used as a spot starter in Washington — a 3.00 ERA in 36 innings. But he was lights out coming out of the bullpen, with a 1.23 ERA in eight relief appearances.

Will he be Tyler Clippard? That’s a high standard. Rizzo told reporters last week after the deal was made that Clippard “maybe the best eighth-inning setup man in the history of the game.”

But the Washington Nationals can’t afford to have the best setup man in the history of the game. Actually, they could easily afford it, but ownership chooses not to, so it’s up to Rizzo to project forward to insure payroll flexibility — after talent, the two most important words for any Major League Baseball franchise seeking long-term success.

Payroll flexibility drove Clippard to Oakland, just as it brought Escobar to Washington.

The infielder is here because the future of the Nationals infield up the middle is up in the air. There is no obvious second base choice right now, and shortstop Ian Desmond is on the trading block, going into the final year of his contract, with the two sides reportedly not even close to make a long term deal.

Washington reportedly offered Desmond a $90 million contract extension last season, which he turned down. They don’t appear close to agreeing to any sort of lengthy contract extension, and Desmond has been the subject of numerous trade talks.

Rizzo has three such commodities — Desmond and starting pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister. One or two of them will likely be playing someplace else next year. Rizzo has to juggle those future payrolls. Escobar helps him do that — but only if he performs above what he did last year in Tampa Bay. He is a career .276 hitter with an above-average glove. He hit .258 with the Rays last season, finishing with 18 doubles, seven home runs and 39 RBI in 137 games. His .324 on-base percentage and .340 slugging percentage were each below his career averages of .347 and .381, respectively.

“We got ourselves a really good everyday baseball player that can play shortstop on a regular basis, has done it on a championship-caliber club,” Rizzo told reporters. “And this year, [he] fulfills us as an upgrade at second base. We have protection and depth in the infield beyond 2015, so we feel that we’ve checked off a lot of the boxes that we try to check off during.”

Protection and depth in the infield beyond 2015. It may be maddening for Nationals fans to lose a favorite now to hedge future bets. But after waiting 33 years for Major League Baseball to return to Washington, a plan for future success should make everyone feel good.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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