How important is a lefty specialist?

How important is a lefty specialist?
February 15, 2013, 10:30 am
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VIERA, Fla. -- When Davey Johnson looked to his bullpen last season and wanted to summon a left-hander, he had no shortage of options. Sean Burnett was one of the best setup men in baseball. Mike Gonzalez was a seasoned veteran capable of retiring some of the game's toughest left-handed sluggers. And Tom Gorzelanny was versatile enough to pitch four innings or face one batter in a big spot.

All three of those southpaws, of course, are now wearing different uniforms, leaving the Nationals without one slam-dunk lefty for their 2013 relief corps.

As far as team officials are concerned, this is nothing to worry about.

"We're going to go with the best guys," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "The amount of left-handed relievers has never been a priority to me. Mostly because we've got right-handers that can get left-handers out. And it coincides with Davey's managerial style."

Indeed, the Nationals have three right-handed relievers who enjoyed strong success against left-handed hitters last season: Tyler Clippard (.170 opponents' batting average), Craig Stammen (.198) and Ryan Mattheus (.241).

All three are perfectly comfortable facing tough sluggers standing in the left side of the batter's box, and all three would be comfortable if asked to hold that role this season without a traditional lefty in their pen.

"One thing I definitely won't do is change my approach against lefties," Mattheus said. "Because I didn't even know I was that successful against lefties before. I'm probably just going to go about it the same way I always have, not put any added pressure. But it's definitely going to be different if I have to go in just to get a lefty out. That would be a different situation."

There are several left-handers in camp, and there is a chance one or two could crack the Opening Day roster, though not necessarily in a traditional specialist role.

Zach Duke, a starter his entire career, is penciled in as Johnson's long reliever and emergency starter. He could essentially replace Gorzelanny, though he could also be asked to do much more.

"I was joking with [bench coach] Randy Knorr the other day, saying I'm going to have to wear three different hats down there this year," Duke said. "I've got to take over Burnett, Gorzelanny and Gonzalez's spots. Whatever that entails, whether it's throwing 3-4 innings at a time or coming in for one inning or one out, I feel confident that I'll be able to get the job done."

The Nationals also brought Bill Bray back to the organization, signing their 2004 first-round pick to a minor-league deal and giving him a chance to earn a roster spot.

Bray, one of eight players involved in the 2006 trade with the Reds that brought Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez to Washington, would serve as more of a traditional lefty specialist, often entering to face only one batter. He's had success in that role when healthy. And, not surprisingly, he believes it's important for all bullpens to employ at least one pitcher like himself.

"I would think it's very important, because there's always situations that come up in a game where managers like to do the matchups," Bray said. "Especially in the NL East, where you have guys like Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Late in the game, I definitely think it's beneficial to have somebody who can come in specifically for that role."

Bray may think it's important, but the two men who have the greatest say in assembling the Nationals' roster might not feel the same way. Odds are, Rizzo and Johnson will head north with no late-inning left-hander, perhaps suggesting the whole idea of a southpaw specialist is overrated.

"I don't know if it's overrated," Mattheus said. "A lot of managers like to do it, and I'm not going to question what they do. But I think the guys down there with the stuff they have in our bullpen, I don't think it really matters whether they're lefties or righties. You could literally go 1-through-7 with guys who throw 95 mph. That's tough to hit from either side of the plate."

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