The Nationals missed out on Prince Fielder when the Tigers swooped in at the last minute to offer a 9 year $214 million dollar contract. That doesn’t mean the off-season is over and it certainly doesn’t mean Mike Rizzo is done trying to improve the Nats. Since the Nats failed to strengthen a weakness they have concentrated this off-season on strengthening their strength. The Nationals pitching staff last season allowed 3.99 runs a game which was seventh best in the NL, and had the sixth best ERA in the league at 3.58.
Breaking that down further the Nationals starters had an ERA of 3.80 and the relievers an ERA of 3.20. The National League average is an ERA of 3.94 for starters and 3.59 for relievers. As a whole the Nationals starters were 0.14 runs per nine innings better than league average and the relievers 0.39 runs per nine innings better. The entire Nationals pitching staff was above average in 2011, but the bullpen was the strength of the Nationals pitching staff.
The addition of Lidge is important as it adds depth to what already appeared to be a deep bullpen. If Lidge can remain healthy he adds yet another weapon to a Nationals bullpen that was already full of lethal pitchers. In trying to understand what this means for the depth of the Nationals bullpen it is fun to look at the best case and the worst case scenarios.
If everything works out perfectly then Storen and Clippard won’t miss a beat from last season, Henry Rodriguez will memorize the location of the strike zone, Brad Lidge will stay healthy and pitch like good Brad Lidge, and Sean Burnett will return to 2010 form. The worst case scenario is Storen and Clippard regress badly, Henry Rodriguez decides that every pitch should hit the bull, Brad Lidge can’t get healthy, and the real Sean Burnett was 2011 Burnett.
As with anything the truth is going to manifest itself somewhere in the middle. Not everything is going to go right and not everything is going to go wrong, but just looking at the two scenarios the best case seems closer to reality. In order for the best case to play out all that has to happen is for guys to be themselves. This best case scenario is a lot different than when Mike Rizzo took over in 2009 and the best case was that maybe the Nats find a closer out of the ragtag bunch Bowden assembled.
From the instant Mike Rizzo took over he has done a good job of improving the Nats bullpen. What was once the biggest weakness of the team is now one of its greatest strengths. Combining the improved bullpen with the health of Stephen Strasburg and Chein-Ming Wang and the addition of Gio Gonzalez the Nationals pitching staff might be one of the best in the game in 2012.
The improvement to the starting pitching when combined with the addition of Lidge should help the Nats bullpen to cut down on their league leading 28 blown saves. One of the issues the Nats faced in 2011 was starters not going deep enough into the game. With a top three of Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Gonzalez that should not be as much of a problem.
What will still be an issue is that the Nationals bullpen may very well still be protecting small leads. It is easier to blow a lead of only one or two runs than it is a lead that is greater. The Nats offense as currently constructed should be better than 2011 if LaRoche and Zimmerman can stay healthy and Werth and Desmond can build off their strong second halves, but that isn’t enough to make the Nats offense anything better than mediocre.
The Nats still have work to do to get the team ready for Opening Day and while this is already the best roster the Nats will put out on the field since they have been in DC it might not be enough to contend. 2012 should be a very fun year for Nats fans but true contention may not arrive until a certain big left handed bat arrives in and is fully acclimated to the major leagues.