Why The Nationals Should Target Relievers This Offseason

Steve O Speak

It seems strange to make their bullpen a priority since it was so strong last season, but that is what I believe the Nationals need to do. There is a glut of quality bullpen arms on the market, which will help keep their price down and the Nats bullpen isn’t as stable as it looks.

Right now going into the season the bullpen looks good with Drew Storen, Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, Joel Peralta, Doug Slaten, and Collin Balester lined up. It would appear that only one more job would be up for the taking, but in reality Peralta, Slaten and Balester could all struggle given their checkered track record. And Clippard is coming off a 90+ inning season (very high for a reliever). While I don’t think a doom and gloom situation will arise, it wouldn’t be surprising to see at least one of these relievers have their performance drop due to injury or ineffectiveness. Also, I would like to see the Nationals make a bold move and trade Sean Burnett this offseason, creating a further ‘hole’.

Now I know it seems counter-intuitive to trade maybe your best reliever when there is a concern about how the bullpen will hold up, but that is exactly what the Nationals should do. Burnett’s value will never be higher than it is right now. He is entering his 2nd arbitration year, which gives the team two years of team control remaining. His contract value will be depressed though making him very attractive to contenders on the trade market looking for a late inning lefty. While the overall reliever market is deep, it is primarily focused on the right-handed side making Burnett more valuable. Of all the lefty relievers on the market only Brian Fuentes and Scott Downs could be considered better options than Burnett. Both are significantly older and will probably cost more in years and money than Burnett, given his Arbitration status. Downs is also a Type-A free agent meaning a team will have to cough up a high draft pick to sign him.

Burnett won’t bring back some massive haul, but given his two years of team control the Nationals should be able to get something good for him. He won’t net the Nationals an elite prospect or even a great one, but he should at least bring them back a pretty good prospect and a lesser prospect in return. Think a little less than what the Nats received for Matt Capps or the Pirates received for Octavio Dotel. If the Nationals can get another quality young prospect who can be ready by 2012, they have to pull the trigger. If the Nats want a more immediate return they could use Burnett as part of the package to acquire a young starter or hitter for this season. Either way they will set themselves up with a player, who plays a more important position, for a longer time. I like Sean Burnett a lot, but last place teams can’t hoard relievers when they have a chance to make the team better.

So who should the Nats target on the market? Well my preference would be to bring in at least two players, preferably one lefty and one righty.

In the lefty department I would target Will Ohman or Pedro Feliciano. Ohman is a bit more of a lefty-only guy, but he can shut down left-handed hitters pretty hard. Feliciano usually is considered as more of a workhorse, but he isn’t that much more effective against righties. Mark Hendrickson, Denny Reyes and former-Nat Joe Beimel are all solid fall back options. As a dark horse candidate I would look to acquire former 1st round pick Andrew Miller from the Florida Marlins. As always the Marlins are on a budget, and probably don’t want to pay Miller the $2 million he will make in arbitration. Given the fact that he is a lefty and one time first round pick (and considered the best pitcher in the draft that featured Lincecum), they will look to get something for him (rather than non-tendering him). It won’t take much, probably a C or C- prospect at best and maybe some cash considerations, but Miller could be an interesting option for the bullpen. I would look to convert him there full-time and hope his stuff plays up like it should. Miller has the potential to develop into a dominate lefty reliever and would be well worth the risk for the Nationals. Given the uncertainty I would still look to acquire one of the aforementioned lefty relievers though to ensure you have two lefties in the bullpen.

From the right side there are a number of very appealing options, but one sticks out in particular for me. And that is Orioles reliever Koji Uehara. Uehara could be an option to close, but I think he is a better fit as a late inning guy. He has incredible control, as he simply doesn’t walk hitters. Despite not being a ‘power’ pitcher, he K’s a number of batters. He is very effective against hitters from both sides of the plate, but is down right nasty against right-handed hitters (who had just a .474 OPS against). He has had some injury issues with the Orioles, and will cost more money than most relievers, but he should be well worth it. Uehara has the ability to be a dominate late inning closer, while at the same time have the quality of arm (he used to be a starter) to pitch 2 or 3 innings if need be.

If the Nationals can grab Uehara and Ohman, while trading Burnett, this team will be in a much better position going forward. If their younger/cheaper bullpen arms continue to perform, Washington could always make another deadline trade to move Uehara if the price is right. Miller is a wild-card option and there might not be enough room on the staff for him, but I’d love to see what he could be as a full-time bullpen arm.

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