At the start of the 2013 season, the Nationals appeared to be the team with the fewest holes in all of baseball. Their lineup appeared stacked, and the rotation looked poised to improve on an NL-best 3.40 ERA. But the team did have one obvious hole in the bullpen. After non-tendering Tom Gorzelanny, and losing both Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez to free agency, the Nationals were left with only one left-hander in long man Zack Duke. While GM Mike Rizzo maintained that the righties in his bullpen were strong enough against lefties that another southpaw was unnecessary, baseball writers and fans alike wondered whether the unconventional bullpen structure could be the team’s Achilles heel.
As it turns out, the team had many more holes than initially thought, and the bullpen was one of them. Duke, after posting a 1.32 ERA in his first tour in Washington, put up an abominable 8.71 ERA in his second. The rest of the bullpen struggled to pick up the slack, and midway through the season, Rizzo was forced to make a change. He brought in two lefties from the minor leagues, Fernando Abad and Ian Krol to balance the relief corps, to mixed results; Abad was poor against lefthanded hitting (giving up a 144 OPS+ to lefties), while Krol was something of a revelation. At any rate, the Nationals bullpen put up a 3.56 ERA, 5th-worst in the National League. Thus, a team still looking to contend in 2014 was left with the same question as in the previous offseason — will they sign a lefty reliever?
Halfway through this offseason, the team still appears to be grappling with that question. Thus far this offseason, two lefthanded relievers have signed major league contracts. Javier Lopez re-signed with the Giants on a 3 year, $13 million deal, and Manny Parra re-upped with the Reds for two years and $5.5 million. There are still several palatable options for the Nationals should they choose to sign a free agent southpaw — Boone Logan, J.P. Howell, and Oliver Perez are all healthy, and have proven track records of success. But signing such established players will come at a cost to the Nationals, both in dollars and, as we’ve seen with Lopez and Parra, in years. The Nationals seem unwilling to give multiple years to relievers, a prudent decision that could nonetheless haunt them in the coming season. However, they do have other options. They could choose to pursue someone like Eric O’Flaherty, who is coming off Tommy John surgery and could likely be had on a one-year deal.
But it seems more likely that the team will fill the hole internally. Krol, as mentioned previously, was a revelation this year — he didn’t allow a run until his 10th appearance, and though his overall statistics aren’t eye-popping, his ..264 wOBA against lefties was second-best among Nationals’ relievers, behind only Tyler Clippard. Meanwhile, Xavier Cedeno shined in limited playing time; he allowed only two hits (both singles) in 15 at-bats against lefties.
But another option, one mentioned in passing by Rizzo himself, is prospect Sammy Solis. The 25-year old, used almost exclusively as a starter in his professional career, pitched very well this year, his first after Tommy John surgery. In 59.2 innings, most of them with Potomac, he posted a 3.32 ERA. He also put up strong statistics in the Arizona Fall League, with a 2.17 ERA and a league-leading 5 wins. Putting an untested lefty (especially one with poor L/R splits) in a major league bullpen is a dangerous proposition. But Solis, whose fastball is down slightly from his pre-Tommy John days, but still averages 90-92 MPH, has the potential to be a solid major league reliever, and at 25, has limited time to validate his prospect status.
The Nationals, in order to avoid the disappointment of 2013, will seek to fill every conceivable hole. But with the price of talent on the free agent market, perhaps lefty reliever is one hole best filled from within.