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Potential Saves are Hiding in Washington

It may not be as glamorous or as lucrative as being a starting pitcher in the Majors, but taking a stroll to the bullpen can save your career… just ask Joel Hanrahan and Steven Shell, both of whom pitch for the Washington Nationals.

Hanrahan, 27, was a second round draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2000 after a distinguished high school pitching career. The right-hander looked primed for an excellent Major League career after a solid 2003 season in Double-A, but that was not to be – for a few years, anyway.

Hanrahan became far more hittable at Triple-A in 2004 (9.7 H/9) and his control regressed (3.6 BB/9 in 2003 to 5.7 BB/9 in 2004). During the next two seasons, he cut back on the hits allowed, but his control continued to be an issue.

After seven seasons in the LA organization, Hanrahan signed with Washington as a minor league free agent prior to the 2007 season. He remained in the starting rotation for Triple-A Columbus and pitched well for the first half of the season, earning a promotion to the Majors for the first time. In 12 appearances for the Nationals, Hanrahan posted a 6.08 FIP and allowed 59 hits in 51 innings. He also posted rates of 6.71 BB/9 and 7.59 K/9. Obviously that walk rate won’t get it done at the Major League level.

Hanrahan showed enough potential to earn another shot at a big league gig – but this time as a reliever. He shifted to the bullpen full-time in 2008 and his career was resurrected. In 69 games, Hanrahan allowed 73 hits in 84.1 innings of work. He posted significantly-improved rates of 4.48 BB/9 and 9.92 K/9. His groundball rate jumped from 30.6 percent to 42.6 percent.

One of the biggest reasons for Hanrahan’s success – at least on the surface – was a significant improvement in his “stuff.” The fastball jumped from an average of 91.7 mph in 2007 to 95.2 mph in 2008, which is a huge increase for any pitcher. Hanrahan’s slider went from 82.4 mph to 85.3 mph. The move also allowed him to focus on those two pitches and his change-up usage dropped from 11.5 percent to 1.9 percent.

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Shell was selected out of high school in the third round of the 2001 draft by the Los Angeles Angels. Like Hanrahan, Shell began his pro career as a highly-regarded starting pitcher. In 2004, in High-A ball, the right-hander fanned 190 batters in 165.1 innings and allowed just 151 hits while playing his home games in a hitter’s park.

During the next two seasons, in Double-A and Triple-A, he became much more hittable and posted hit rates of 9.9 H/9 in 2005 and 11.7 H/9 in 2006. Unlike Harahan, though, Shell’s control remained very good, including a rate of 2.3 BB/9 in 2006 at Triple-A.

The Angels moved Shell to the bullpen in 2007 – although he also made seven starts at Triple-A – with mixed results. He posted a 5.39 FIP and allowed 83 hits in 70.1 innings of work. After the season he was allowed to leave the organization as a minor league free agent. Shell, now 25, signed with Washington.

He began 2008 in the Triple-A bullpen. The right-hander posted a 3.34 FIP and posted rates of 2.16 BB/9 and 8.33 K/9, earning himself a promotion to the Major Leagues for the very first time. Shell allowed just 34 hits in 50 innings for the Nationals, and he posted rates of 3.60 BB/9 and 7.38 K/9. His ERA was 2.16, but his FIP was 4.11.

While Hanrahan has better pure stuff than Shell, the latter gets by with better command and control, as well as a good mix of pitches. His repertoire includes an 89 mph fastball, a curveball (which he uses almost 28% of the time), a slider and a change-up.

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The closer gig in Washington is wide open for 2009, although Hanrahan may have the inside track after saving nine games in 2008. Shell’s diverse repertoire invokes similarities to Angels’ super-set-up man Scot Shields (although he throws about 3 mph faster on average than Shell). With questionable starting pitching and a less-than-threatening offence, the Nationals may end up winning a lot of close games (not to say they’ll win a lot of games – just that the games they win will not be blowouts), which could create quite a few save opportunities.