By: Rich Arleo 

CBS Local Sports, in our “30 Players 30 Days” spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.

 

Drew Storen, Pitcher, Washington Nationals

2014 season (Majors): 65 G, 11 SV, 56.1 IP, 1.12 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 2 W, 46 SO, 11 BB

Normally, a player entering his sixth full season in the bigs has too much experience for a list like this, but digging deeper, Drew Storen fits here. The Nationals on paper are stacked, with established studs in their rotation from top to bottom and starters set at each position on the field.

Some of the younger guys on the squad have already been featured in past years, such as Jordan Zimmermann (way past his breakout season) and Bryce Harper (still a can’t-miss player, but coming off his worst season). So moving to the bullpen, the post-hype Storen becomes one of the more intriguing young players to watch on the Nationals entering the 2015 season.

Storen was the “closer of the future” back in 2010 when he made his big league debut, and he technically had his “breakout” season in ‘11 when he saved 43 games with a 2.75 ERA for the Nats. But Storen missed the first 89 games of ‘12 after having surgery to remove a bone chip from his elbow. He finished the regular season strong, but in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, Storen was handed a two-run lead in the ninth inning, but blew the lead and the game, ending the Nats’ season.

That offseason, the Nationals went out and signed Rafael Soriano to be their closer, and Storen had his worst season stuck in the middle of the bullpen, even spending some time in the Minor Leagues and finishing the year with a 4.52 ERA. Last year, however, things got back on track. Storen was strong in the back end of the bullpen and ended up with a sparkling 1.12 ERA, eventually taking over as closer and saving 11 games. But the postseason nightmares returned for Storen in the 2014 NLDS against the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Storen blew the save in Game 2 after replacing Zimmermann, and he allowed one run in a non-save situation in the ninth in Game 3, but eventually finished off the win. The Nats never had a lead in Game 4, and just like that, the season was over.

The question now is, has Storen matured enough in order to avoid another collapse and cement himself as the Nationals’ closer, or will it be 2013 all over again? At 27 years old and with the closer’s role all but his, this is pretty much his make-or-break season.

Storen has a few pitches in his repertoire, but after relying primarily on a four-seam fastball that sits around 93-94 MPH, a sinker (two-seamer) and a slider for most of his career, he really began mixing in his changeup more than ever last season. According to Pitchf/x data on Fangraphs.com, Storen threw his four-seamer just 16 percent of the time in 2014, relying more on his two-seamer. But in all, he threw fastballs just 53 percent of the time (the lowest of his career by a wide margin) and almost doubled his changeup usage from 9.7 percent in 2013 to 18.4 percent last season.

Storen has really been able to improve on the changeup each year, dropping its velocity from 88 mph when he rarely used it in 2011, to 86.7 mph last season — almost seven mph slower than his fastball/sinker combo. He used this new combination to record his highest swinging-strike percentage since 2012 (10.4 last year, 9.4 in ‘13 and 13.4 in ‘12).

If Storen can put the mental aspect of another rough postseason behind him, it appears that he’s established himself enough where he can return to being the dominant closer he was just a few seasons ago. But if he can’t, it’s unfortunately probably time for the Nationals to look in another direction for their “closer of the future”.

 Rich Arleo is a freelance sports writer and editor who covers Major League Baseball and fantasy sports. You can follow him on Twitter, @Rarleo 

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