Nats to rely on young crop of relievers

Nats to rely on young crop of relievers

WASHINGTON -- The bullpen used to be the least of the Nationals' worries. They often went into Spring Training knowing that Chad Cordero was going to close games and that right-handers such as Jon Rauch and Luis Ayala would pitch in the seventh and eighth innings.

All three players are gone, and Saul Rivera, 31, is the only holdover from those quality bullpens. With the average age of the staff at 26.1, Washington will have to rely on a bullpen that is young and inexperienced.

The only major bullpen acquisition the Nationals made this offseason was selecting right-hander Terrell Young from the Reds in the Rule 5 Draft.

Young, 23, had a combined 2.88 ERA this past season for Class A Sarasota and Class A Dayton. In 43 relief outings, he tallied a 1.68 strikeout-to-walk ratio (47 strikeouts/28 walks), a statistic that he has improved each season since 2006.

In five professional seasons, Young has held opponents to a .224 batting average, while fanning 8.3 batters per nine innings. Young is 8-12 with 12 saves and a 3.60 ERA in 108 career games.

"I'm young and I'm 23," Young said during the Nationals Caravan last week. "My goal is to come out of the bullpen and show them I can throw strikes, limit my walks and do my job."

Reportedly, the Nationals were interested in free-agent left-hander Will Ohman. But don't expect Washington to acquire a quality reliever before Spring Training starts. The team wants to spend its money on offense and starting pitching.

"The bullpen is extremely young, and there is going to be competition," general manager Jim Bowden said. "We are always trying to find ways to make it better as well. There are trades we are working on, but we are also not afraid to allow a young pitcher to surprise people in Spring Training. ... I think we've watched a lot of Major League clubs over the last two or three years spend a lot of money on their bullpens rather than other places, and it didn't get them anywhere.

Hot Stove

"So, I think if we want to allocate our dollars right now, we would like to have a big left-handed bat in the middle of our lineup. We would like to have one or two more starting pitchers who can help us get where we want to get to quicker. We would rather put our dollars there than load up in the bullpen when the team is really not good enough to do that yet."

The Nationals will rely heavily on Joel Hanrahan, Mike Hinckley, Garrett Mock and Steven Shell, who have spent most of their professional careers as starters. Hanrahan became a reliever last year, and he was named the closer last July, when Washington traded Rauch to Arizona for infielder Emilio Bonifacio.

The results for Hanrahan were mixed in the closer's role. He had a 3.96 ERA with nine saves. While he has a strong arm, Hanrahan must cut down on his walk total, and he will be the first one to admit that.

"I know what I need to do to be ready for possibly 80 games," Hanrahan said. "I know what I need to do between games. Everybody knows I have to cut down on my walks, and that's old news for me now. If I do that, throw strikes and let the guys behind me do the work, I'll be all right."

Hinckley, Mock and Shell were all successful as relievers in less than a full season. Can they remain consistent on the mound? Bowden believes so, thanks to several pitching coaches the Nationals employ within their ranks.

"We have tremendous confidence in [pitching coach] Randy St. Claire, Spin Williams and Jose Rijo in what they can do to develop pitchers," Bowden said. "Sometimes, the best bullpens are built from within."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.