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MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

Washington has proven talent in its stable of relievers

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Washington has proven talent in its stable of relievers play video for Washington has proven talent in its stable of relievers

MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The words were spoken without fanfare. Davey Johnson wasn't breaking new ground Sunday morning when he characterized Nationals pitcher Dan Haren as likely to pitch relatively deep into his starts and thereby protect the bullpen and keep the bullpen strong.

Hmmmm. Remember when it was the responsibility of the bullpen to protect the starters. The term "save" was born at a time when bullpens assisted the starters, not after starters devolved into set up guys for Sutter, Quiz, Eck, Rollie and Goose. Of course the game is different now from what it was when Johnson was playing second base behind Palmer, Cuellar, McNally, Barber and Bunker. But for that phrasing to roll off his tongue so readily ... well, it just seemed odd, backwards.

If nothing goes wrong for the Nationals between now and April Fool's Day (aka Opening Day), the likes of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Haren will be protecting a rather special bullpen. With general expectations for the Nationals nothing short of mountain high, their pen goes river deep.

The National League East has Jonathan Papelbon and Craig Kimbrel, who Johnson identifies as "possibly the best two closers in the league." Some might consider Kimbrel the best in the game. But, given his druthers, the Nationals' manager would opt for the Nationals' pen and not second-guess himself.

He has Rafael Soriano, the 2012 understudy for the great Mariano, in position to do what he did for the Yankees. And Soriano is to be backed up -- actually preceded -- by Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Henry Rodriguez. Nice assortment! What Johnson will have at his disposal for late-inning protection of leads is a set of pitchers with closer stuff, closer mentality and closer resumés.

Soriano (45 saves in 2010 and 42 last year), Clippard (32 last year) and Storen (43 in 2011) have exceeded 30 saves over the three most recent seasons. Lou Piniella's Nasty Boys hadn't produced such a distinction before the Reds championship season in 1990. And they didn't thereafter, for that matter.

And in between the injury to Brad Lidge and his own injury last season, Rodriguez converted nine of 12 save opportunities.

In the Nationals' 2012 scenario, adversity-turned-necessity served as the mother of invention.

"We had long men setting up, set up men closing, long men closing," Johnson said Sunday. "At times we had problems. But it helps us now. "

Johnson is a manager who almost invites problems so he can exercise brain cells and find solutions. "It's probably my mathematical background," he says. His solutions worked quite well last season when the Nationals won the National League East. And now he has been rewarded for figuring it all out.

He recalculated the depth of his pen upon his return from an early January trip to Africa. General manager Mike Rizzo had added Soriano to the mix. Happy New Year, skipper. It could have been better. Rizzo could have imported a left-handed reliever too, given that Tom Gorzelanny and Sean Burnett had departed, leaving Zach Duke as the lone left arm in a seven-man pen in place to face the menacing left-handed bats of the NL East -- Ryan Howard, Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman, Justin Heyward and Ike Davis, et al.

Then again, Soriano, Clippard and Storen have prospered as closers because they have handled hitters of either handedness. If he chooses, Johnson can take the ball from his starter after six innings, hand it to Storen or Clippard -- it's called manager's prerogative -- then, if necessary, find the left-handed hitting opponent most likely to be undone by Duke's delivery, and then summon whichever former closer he hadn't used.

And nothing says a left-handed reliever can't be imported or promoted -- free agents Fernando Abad and Bill Bray are non-roster entries in camp -- at some point.

For now, Johnson says, "I don't have room for another lefty reliever."

He'd like to say he doesn't have a need either.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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