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Assessing the Washington Nationals pitching needs at the deadline

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The non-waiver trade deadline is just seventeen days away. Will the Nats make a push to add some relief help?

The Nats have already made one move to improve the bullpen by adding David Carpenter. Should there be more moves in store as the deadline approaches?
The Nats have already made one move to improve the bullpen by adding David Carpenter. Should there be more moves in store as the deadline approaches?
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

With the trade deadline just a few weeks away and the Washington Nationals in what may be a dogfight in the NL East, the Nats certainly seem to be a team that could be buying at the deadline. Last week, we identified some of the spots where they could be looking to upgrade offensively. Today, we're going to take a look at the pitching staff and see if we can spot anywhere the Nats may be looking to improve.

The Nats certainly don't appear to be in the market for help in the rotation. Max Scherzer has been arguably the best pitcher in baseball so far this season. Jordan Zimmermann ranks 18th in the NL in ERA and 10th in fWAR so far this season. Gio Gonzalez has put a rough start to the season behind him and started looking like himself again. He hasn't allowed more than one run in any of his past three starts, and has allowed two runs or fewer in five of his past six starts. There are a couple of question marks in the rotation right now in Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg, though.

Fister has looked like a poor man's version of the pitcher he was last season. His strikeout rate has gone from below average (5.38) to abysmal (4.36). While his 1.97 walk rate is still outstanding, he's been nowhere near as dominant with his control as he was last season (1.32). Fister's command within the zone hasn't been nearly as strong as it was last season either. He's left more pitches up, and has paid for it with a career low 40.7% ground ball rate (48.9% last season). Fister missed over a month with a forearm strain earlier this season, so it's possible that was responsible for some of his problems. Regardless of what the problem is, he hasn't been the borderline ace pitching near the back of the rotation that he was last season.

Strasburg showed some serious signs of life after returning from the disabled list late last month. The swing and miss stuff that he's shown throughout his career appeared to be back, which looked to be a harbinger for a successful second half. Alas, he left his third start back from the disabled list with an oblique injury. We're still not sure just how soon he's going to be ready at this point.

With Fister not performing up to expectations and Strasburg's status uncertain, you would think that the Nats might have some interesting in adding a middle to back end starting pitcher, but it seems unlikely. It seems the Nats would prefer to keep Tanner Roark in the bullpen at this point, if for no other reason than to stop jerking him around. Offseason acquisition Joe Ross has been the best of the four minor league replacement options that the Nats have tried, and he would seem to be who the club will likely turn to if Strasburg's injury keeps him out for a while. Ross certainly looked like he belonged in his earlier trial with the club, posting a 2.66 ERA, a 1.11 FIP, and a 23:2 strikeout to walk ratio in 20.1 innings. With the strength of the top three starters and a solid (if unspectacular) Fister, it doesn't seem like it would be a pressing need for the Nats to add a starting pitcher.

The obvious need that everyone has been calling for throughout the first half is an additional arm towards the back of the bullpen. Closer Drew Storen has been excellent this season, converting 27 of 29 save opportunities with a 1.89 ERA. Getting the ball to Storen hasn't been quite as easy for the Nats, though their bullpen has probably been a lot better than you think....

Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Starters 525.1 7.78 1.92 0.77 3.68 3.20 3.53 10.6
Relievers 244.2 8.20 2.72 0.74 3.31 3.36 3.55 2.3
Total 770 7.91 2.17 0.76 3.56 3.25 3.54 13.0

The bullpen so far has actually had a significantly better ERA than the starting rotation. As a unit, the Nationals bullpen actually ranks tenth in MLB with that 3.31 ERA and seventh in MLB with 2.3 fWAR. There have been some individual players who haven't performed as well as we'd hoped they would, but many of them are actually no longer on the big league roster. The Nationals current seven man bullpen doesn't actually look all that bad....

  • Drew Storen
  • Matt Thornton
  • David Carpenter
  • Casey Janssen
  • Aaron Barrett
  • Blake Treinen
  • Tanner Roark
  • Felipe Rivero

Yeah... That's eight players, not seven. Since the team hasn't had a need for a fifth starter since Strasburg's injury, they've been running with eight out of the bullpen. Now that everyone except for Craig Stammen (out for the year) is back, it's not really clear who will be the odd man out. The top four (and Roark) don't seem to be going anywhere, but it could be interesting to see how the Barrett/Treinen/Rivero situation plays out. Rivero has an edge in that he's one of just two lefties in the bullpen right now, but the Nats seem committed to making Barrett and Treinen big parts of the bullpen moving forward.

Of course, we're not looking at which player gets sent down to AAA some time next week. We're looking for spots where the Nats look like they could use an upgrade via trade. Given what the cost is liable to be if the Nats trade for a player like Aroldis Chapman, is this really a big enough need for the Nats to give away a handful of their most valuable prospects? If they go a cheaper route and trade for a guy like Jonathan Papelbon, Joaquin Benoit, or John Axford, are they really going to be improving their bullpen over Barrett or Treinen that much?

My answer to the two questions above is no.

Mike Rizzo did what he always seems to do earlier this season, adding a valuable piece to help settle down his bullpen for peanuts when he snagged David Carpenter from the Yankees. Thornton, Carpenter, and Janssen form an underrated trio that can handle late-inning leverage spots. The return of Aaron Barrett gives them two outstanding weapons (along with killer ROOGY Treinen) from the right side in middle relief. Rivero figures to be more than a LOOGY down the road, but he's absolutely dominating against left-handed hitting right now and gives them a tremendous power arm from the left side. Roark is a versatile long man who has shown that he can throw in short relief as well.

Is Aroldis Chapman better than any of them? Abso-freakin-lutely! Does that mean that the Nats should give up two Top 100 prospects to get Chapman for a year and a half? I don't think so. Of the cheaper options, Papelbon would be the one most likely to be a certain upgrade over Barrett or Treinen, but chances are that he'll nix any deal that doesn't leave him closing so that his option for 2016 vests. I'd flip a coin between Barrett/Treinen and Benoit/Axford.

Of course, like many of you, I'd take Tyler Clippard back in a heartbeat!

Anyway, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. We'll look at some of the relief options (as well as the 1b/corner outfield options) that figure to be available over the next couple of weeks. Today, we're looking at identifying the Nats' team needs. Could the Nats improve the last spot or two in the bullpen? Sure.... Does it seem like it should be their top priority? Not really.