1,727 Words On The Bullpen Shake-Up
With a sharp slider and fastball, Joel Hanrahan still fits the closer prototype -- at least physically -- better than anybody else in the Washington organization. He needs to work on the mental side, though; that's the verdict both from Hanrahan and those in management. With closing games, it's about experience. Yes, Hanrahan got a trial run last year, starting in July, and performed OK. But, as acting GM Mike Rizzo notes below, closing games when you're 25 games out in September is far different than closing them out in April, when your team is desperate for a victory.
So, now the Nats turn to Kip Wells and Julian Tavarez. Their experience? They have plenty in baseball, not much when it comes to closing baseball games. Tavarez has been a designated closer for one partial season in his 17-year career. Wells, a career starter, last closed baseball games while in the Cape Cod League during college. Both, speaking today about their new roles, spoke of a similar mental approach: They'll approach the final three outs like any other three outs.
Said Wells: "It's like shooting free throws. If you're shooting for a million dollars, you might be like, 'Oh [expletive].' But if you're at your house, you might just be doing it. You just do what you know to do."
A few other notes here, before we get to the reactions...
* As for some other relievers: The two relief pitchers designated for assignment during last week's bullpen purge, Steven Shell and Wil Ledezma, both cleared waivers today. Ledezma will report to Class AAA Syracuse. Shell has elected to become a free agent.
* Here is Wells, talking about one complication of the closer-by-committee approach: "Unfortunately, you still have to get to the ninth now. Are you gonna save me and Tavarez and Hanrahan for the ninth and then use the three of us to get those three outs? How are you gonna get there? You can't save X, Y, and Z because they're the most reliable."
* A moment for reflection, if you will. I think it's already fair to say that Jim Bowden greatly miscalculated his team's needs/weaknesses this offseason. Think back, for instance, to the bullpen this team had in February. No Beimel. No Wells. No Tavarez. No real back-up plan whatsoever if all the young guys failed. Bowden, w/r/t his bullpen, was counting on a pipedream.
Now, some thoughts from MANNY ACTA.
Q: Talk about how you plan to handle the closer duties now?
Well what we're going to do is put the veteran guys back at the end of the game and take all the pressure off these young kids and put them earlier in the game. Right now we're just going to go by committee and match-ups at the end of the game. Probably most of the duties will be handled by Wells and Tavarez up until Beimel comes back, and then we'll put him in the mix. Depending on how things go this week, he might end up being the guy.
Q: Do you think with Joel this was a situation where the role was just too overwhelming for him?
I think the [team's] start had something to do with it. I think the fact that, you know, he struggled at the beginning along with the whole team to get wins and he put a little bit of pressure on himself and didn't have the right attitude going out there. I think he wasn't as positive and as aggressive as he should have been. When you have that type of job, you have to believe in yourself and attack hitters and get it done and not have any negative thoughts come into your head...
It's not an easy job. Obviously the way we have started, some of those guys come into the game and at times they look like they have a little bit of pressure on themselves and don't want to be the next guy to blow the lead. And you can't go about it that way... These guys are learning at the highest, toughest level there is -- the major leagues. But we're going to continue to do whatever we can to improve it, even if we have to turn it upside-down or keep tinkering with stuff here and there. We think that Joel has the stuff to do it, but right now he just has to earn his way back.
Q: So right now, is Joel at all in the committee you see using in the ninth inning, or is he pretty much gonna be in the earlier innings?
Right now we're just going to try to put him in some type of situations where he's not going to be under any pressure and can just go out there and work himself into his groove, and probably work in the earlier innings -- the sixth and seventh innings. And then we'll see. We're using the word 'committee' here. Here and there you might see him again, because we do think he has the stuff to do it.
Q: What was his reaction?
He understood completely. He knows it is not fair to the team and not fair to him right now the way things are going. So we gave him a big, huge pep talk, me and Randy [St. Claire], and assured him that we know he's capable of doing it. But you just can't come into ballgames and have the thoughts that he had last night about giving up home runs and stuff like that. This is a small ballpark, but as small as it is, [Ryan] Howard in 600 at bats hits 40, 50 home runs. There are over 500 at bats where he doesn't hit one, and to have that kind of job you have to go in there and not even have one of those thoughts cross your mind.
Q: Does it make it a little harder to manage your bullpen now that you no longer have one designated guy to handle the ninth?
Yeah, but this is what we have, and we'll just have to work with it and make it better. I mean, we're not in a position that a few teams are where they have guys with roles defined that have been doing it for a lot of years. We have to deal with what we have, and things are going to get better. I think these guys have the stuff; they just have to start believing in themselves.
Some thoughts from JOEL HANRAHAN.
Q: What was your reaction to the decision?
Well, it's what is best for the ballclub right now. Obviously the results haven't been there, so you can't keep running the same guy out there in the ninth inning with the game on the line and the same guy is not getting the job done. You have to mix it up. I was expecting this to come after last night, and I just have to get back to where I need to be and go out there and throw strikes.
Q: Do you think the pressure, especially with the bad start, got to you?
I think a little bit. I put some added pressure on myself. Any time you add extra pressure on yourself, you're gonna try to go harder and when you go harder it's gonna backfire on you. There is already enough pressure out there as it is, where if you add pressure yourself, you're bound for failure. So with the switch coming up, it will be a situation where they just get me in some games and I can go back out there and get my confidence back and ready to go.
Q: Do you expect to be back in the mix for the job eventually?
We didn't talk about that, but I told them I will be back there at some time. Maybe two weeks, maybe a month, maybe three months. Who knows. I'm just going to go out there and help the team win.
Some thoughts from MIKE RIZZO.
Q: Tavarez and Wells -- are they maybe the preferred option here because they've been through some battles and have the mental toughness?
Yeah, experience is an important part of getting the last three or four or five outs in a game. Like we discussed earlier, most closers go through an apprenticeship of working their way into the ninth inning, and Tavarez and Wells have the experience with major league time.
Q: When you signed those guys, it was to minor league deals. Not everybody knew what to expect --
Not everybody knew what to expect, but somebody did. [Rizzo pointed to his noggin and laughed.]
Q: Did you feel like you were covering yourselves with those guys in case something happened?
Well, I think it was all based upon stepping back and giving yourself a true evaluation of your club, and going into spring training, I felt that the bullpen was the most vulnerable spot of the club. Not only the bullpen proper, but also to protect our young starters, and we thought going in there we had a very good, quality set of pitchers. Like I told you guys in spring training -- maybe when we signed Tavarez -- nothing depletes a young starting pitching staff worse than having a bullpen blow it on you. That was really the rationale for making the move. We were so young and so thin and so vulnerable in the bullpen that we had to bolster ourselves with some veteran guys.
Q: Obviously now Hanrahan's role changes. Does this make you also re-think at all his role down the line?
Well, the only thing it changes about his role down the line is that he will have to earn his way back to the later innings. It doesn't change the stuff that he's got or the person he is. He's a great guy with great stuff, and probably was thrown into a position that maybe he wasn't prepared for mentally. He was certainly prepared physically. And September, when you're out of first as many games as we were, doesn't prepare you for the rigors of getting the first three outs against the Philadelphia Phillies with 41,000 in the stands. So it doesn't change my thoughts of Joel, but I think it will change how he gets to his final goal.
April 28, 2009; 6:57 PM ET
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