StrategyApril 24, 2009

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Closer Complex: National Emergency

By Matthew Robertson

The recent catastrophe that is the Washington Nationals closing situation reared its ugly head last week when current closer Joel Hanrahan showed his ineptitude and inexperience in havoc-causing fashion. This performance had Nationals management and fans up in arms while calling for a bullpen overhaul. When the dust settled, backup catcher Josh Bard was optioned to the minors, the inconsistent Wil Ledezma and the lackluster Steve Shell were DFAed, and Washington’s best middle reliever over the last few years, Saul Rivera, was demoted after a poor outing (he has since been has recalled). The response by the Nationals was to bring up pitching prospect Jordan Zimmermann to start, bring up pitchers Jason Bergmann and Kip Wells, and promote the now full-time reliever Garrett Mock to setup duty, as Mock was closing in the minors.

Hanrahan proved that he is not ready to close full-time in any capacity. He proved that by not being able to locate his fastball, which is key for any high-velocity pitcher. He started to try and aim his pitches, which went badly very quickly. At only 27, Hanrahan does still have a lot of potential, and he obviously has the most upside of anyone in the pen, but upside doesn’t always mean results and his time is waning if he can’t turn it around.

There are a few interesting candidates aside from Hanrahan that bear attention to all those interested in the Nationals predicament. But first, let’s eliminate those pitchers likely not in the equation. Saul Rivera was given one save chance and he proceeded to blow it emphatically. It also led to his demotion, so he’s likely not on the shortlist to contend for the ninth inning role anytime soon. Veteran Julian Tavarez looks like he’s a bad performance from being DFAed himself, so don’t consider him, as he’s not close to the pitcher he once was. Joe Beimel was recently placed on the disabled list with a left hip flexor strain and the once-coveted prospect Mike Hinckley just doesn’t have the stuff to close due to multiple injuries.

A few relievers with a chance to close for Washington in the future, in addition to Hanrahan are Garrett Mock, are Jason Bergmann, Jesus Colome, and Zech Zinicola. Baseball America touts Mock as the heir to the closer throne, with his heavy fastball and competitive changeup. Still, Mock doesn’t have dominant stuff in any way and was being impaled in the minors. Bergmann at one time maxed out his fastball at 97 mph, but with his large assortment of injuries, he’s lucky to get it over 92 mph. Maybe a move to the closer’s spot could rejuvenate him some. There is no doubt in my mind that if former GM Jim Bowden hadn’t messed up Colome’s eligibility, he would have least gotten a chance in the ninth inning over the past week. Manager Manny Acta repeatedly complimented him this spring, but he is ineligible to be on the MLB roster until May 15th. Zinicola is likely the Nationals best relief prospect in the minors and he’s been un-scored upon so far this year in four games. I know that that is not a large sample size but considering the alternatives, he should see time in the majors this year. Also, those wishing Ryan Wagner would finally get it together are likely fooling themselves, but I like the sentiment.

Converting a starter to the bullpen is another possibility, and it might allow the Nationals to pick from a higher quantity of talent. Current starters Daniel Cabrera and Scott Olsen have had long bouts with consistency and control. A move to the bullpen for these starters could allow Washington to maximize their potential. A few other arms to track would be Collin Balester and Ross Detwiler, as both have very live arms and there have been a few recent starters that initially found success in relief prior to going back to starting (ex: Adam Wainwright).

Another possibility would be to trade for a reliever to close for the Nationals. Washington likely has enough talent to acquire a quality relief arm without giving up key building blocks. Huston Street, I think, remains a possibility as he is: likely the best reliever not closing, likely jilted in Colorado, cheaper since losing the closer job, and still only 25, even though he is arbitration eligible. In addition to Street, a few other potential trade candidates would be Boston’s Daniel Bard and Seattle’s Josh Fields (though I believe he can’t be dealt until June), who are both heavily blocked by young and established closers. Maybe Washington could try for one of the elite young backup closers like Jose Arredondo, Tony Pena, or another closer prospect, though that action may prove very expensive.

Manager Manny Acta recently gave his endorsement to Hanrahan as his closer, so it appears his leash is little longer than many were expecting. Was this due to the Nationals not currently having a worthy replacement? Probably, but he’s still the guy to bank on going forward in the short-term, though it’s a super-volatile situation and one fantasy owners should try and stay away from. Of course, where there is opportunity, there is often the possibility of success and those watching things closely could benefit from finding a future closer.

That’s it for this edition of Closer Complex. E-mail any questions to and be sure to check the 2009 Closer Thread for updates.

Matthew Robertson is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. You can catch up with Matthew in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of Havok1517.
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