The Nationals Bullpen

It’s a good thing readers aren’t able to leave comments on the Fangraphs+ blurbs because I botched the blurb I wrote on Washington’s closer, Rafael Soriano. In that blurb I stated that Soriano is “a lock to be drafted as a top five closer.” As it turns out, not so much. Soriano is currently going 13th among closers in NFBC drafts. I either underestimated the ability of drafters to see some of the red flags, or I forgot that ADP is heavily influenced by the order in which players are listed in draft rooms and that the people doing the listing would see his red flags.

What are those red flags? In reality, all the peripheral numbers that declined last year for Soriano are all tied to his ability to miss bats. His velocity was down which helped hitters make more contact on pitches in the zone than ever before which led to his swing strike rate dropping which obviously led to fewer strikeouts. To be exact, his strikeout rate fell 6.3%. If you’re looking for a positive sign, his fastball velocity got back close to his normal speed after April and May.

The projection systems listed on Soriano’s player page all expect his strikeout rate to bounce back, but not all the way back to where it was in 2012 and before. As a result, they project his rate stats to regress. Steamer and Oliver are more pessimistic than the Fans, and I’m with Steamer and Oliver here. They each project a 3.56 ERA and a WHIP just under 1.30. Despite the regression, that’s still not a bad pair of rate stats if it comes with 40 saves or close to it. Washington is a good team, and Soriano shouldn’t have much trouble approaching or surpassing 40 again so long as he keeps the job.

Because I so grossly miscalculated what Soriano’s draft day value would be, I said in his blurb that he is an obvious name to stay away from on draft day. But now that I see his actual price, I think he might be the type of guy I would take as my first closer. I’ve been ending up with Ernesto Frieri quite a bit as my first closer in mocks, but his ADP and Soriano’s are essentially the same. Because Frieri is such a fly ball heavy pitcher who is prone to the long ball and blow ups, Soriano’s job seems much safer to me. If I decide not to wait and load up on the Parnell, Cishek and Axfords of the world, Soriano actually isn’t a bad choice as your first closer if he falls outside the top 130.

If Soriano were to lose his job, Tyler Clippard would be the favorite to take over the role. Clippard is going on four straight years of 70+ innings and a strikeout rate over 26%. His strikeout rate has declined in each of those four years, but it’s still good enough that you can expect him to strike out a better per inning or more. His ERAs have fluctuated over that span thanks to fluctuations in BABIP that are to be expected with small sample sizes, but his cumulative ERA for those four years is 2.73.

A reliever who can be expected to have a sub-3.00 ERA and strikeout at least a batter per inning can have fantasy value even if he’s not racking up saves. I often like to use three roster slots (in standard ESPN leagues with 25 roster slots) on three elite, non-closer relievers. With three of those guys combined you can get 200+ IP, more than 200 strikeouts and good rate stats. In other words, you can essentially combine those three slots and turn them into one #1 starter. Clippard is one of those guys I use in those slots. While we’re discussing it, I also like Mark Melancon, Jake McGee, and Kelvin Herrera for those slots this year.

Drew Storen was once thought to be the closer of the future in Washington, and he looked well on his way to being that guy as he had 43 saves in his second big league season in 2011. But surgery to remove a bone chip in his elbow following the 2011 season kept him out for over half of the 2012 season and limited him to just 30.1 innings. Clippard closed in his stead and essentially kept the job even after Storen returned. Despite the injury limiting his work, 2012 was a very encouraging year for Storen as his swinging strike rate went through the roof up to 13.4% from the single digits.

But that performance didn’t carry over to 2013. Storen’s ability to miss bats regressed back to the 9-10% range, and he had his first bit of bad luck that can so often kill relievers in the small sample size of a season. In his roughly 150 innings of work prior to last year, his BABIP and strand rate had been well on the good side of league average. But last year his BABIP was up at .319, and his strand rate was 67.8%. The good news is that the BABIP wasn’t accompanied by a spike in line drive rate. and the strand rate wasn’t accompanied by a big spike in home runs allowed. Hopefully that means he should regress back toward average and back toward an ERA around 3.00.

While Storen is an interesting case, it ultimately doesn’t really matter what he does for fantasy purposes. At least in anything other than very deep leagues. He has nothing more than an outside chance at double digit saves, and there are much safer options if you’re looking to draft elite, non-closer relievers like I mentioned earlier. About the only league in which I can imagine I would end up with Storen would be an NL-only league.

The Nationals bullpen is a pretty strong unit if Craig Stammen is only the fourth most important name to discuss. Stammen has topped 80 innings in each of the last two seasons, and during that time he has a 2.54 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 23.4% K%. That’s a hell of a fourth option out of the bullpen. He’s probably not quite good enough to be considered one of those elite, non-closers you might take in 12-team mixed leagues. But if you start getting into leagues that are a bit deeper, he’s definitely someone to consider. And he’s definitely someone I’d target prior to Storen.

The four relievers discussed above are the only four Washington relievers projected to have more than 50 innings this year, and they were the only four to top 40 innings last year. They all topped 60 innings, and they combined to handle just shy of 60% of all of Wahsington’s bullpen work. In other words, these are the four you need to know and the only four that might end up on your fantasy team.



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You can find more of Brett's work on TheFantasyFix.com or follow him on Twitter @TheRealTAL.


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Dave
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Dave

He loses value due to contract – has an option that will vest based on games finished, and he will lose a lot of chances due to that. No way Nats let him hit that clause with Clippard and Storen on hand. Stay away.

David
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David

He will not lose a lot of chances. He finished a career-high 58 games last year. He’d need 62 this year for the option to vest. So he’d have to finish 4 more than the most in his career. He might lose a couple chances, if that.

Ethan
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Ethan

I’m fairly sure his vesting option is for finishing 65 games, which he’s never done in his career, so I doubt it’s a huge concern for the Nats

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