Washington Nationals' General Manager Mike Rizzo entered the offseason determined to rebuild the Nationals' bullpen after a rough, disappointing season from the relief corps in 2015. With the departures of relievers like Craig Stammen, Matt Thornton, Drew Storen and David Carpenter there were some holes to fill.
"We need to get deeper," Rizzo told MLB Network hosts Matt Vasgersian and Harold Reynolds when asked about the need to upgrade the 'pen early in the offseason.
"We need to have a more veteran presence. We need to have a greater skill set to get out both right-handers and left-handers and we're going to be active in that market, be it the trade market or the free agent market, because we think it's a point of emphasis for us."
A couple of free agent signings this winter (Shawn Kelley, Oliver Perez, Yusmeiro Petit) and the 2-for-1 trade with the Los Angeles Angels that landed Trevor Gott (and Michael Brady) helped the rebuild.
Storen was dealt, in a move that opened up a late-inning role for whichever pitcher steps up to grab it, assuming new manager Dusty Baker isn't going to forego traditional roles and just go with the best matchups when it's late and the Nationals have a slim lead.
The Nationals added experience, to go with some of their hard-throwing young relievers... and (much to some fans' dismay) held on to veteran right-hander Jonathan Papelbon, who will be called on to work the ninth inning unless a young reliever somehow unseats the 35-year-old closer. Not likely.
Can Papelbon lock down the ninth? Can Blake Treinen figure out how to get lefties out? Who's going to lock down the seventh and eighth innings? Will young left-hander Felipe Rivero continue to impress? There aren't many open spots, but here are the pitchers currently on the Nationals' 40-Man roster who will be in Spring Training competing for the openings in Washington's rebuilt bullpen...
• Abel De Los Santos - 23 yo, RHP - 2015 Stats: AA - (4-4), 8 SV, 39 G, 57 ⅔ IP, 3.43 ERA, 3.39 FIP, 12 walks (1.87 BB/9), 55 Ks (8.58 K/9); MLB - (0-0) 2 G, 1 ⅔ IP, 5.40 ERA, 9.13 FIP, 1 walk (5.40 BB/9), 3 Ks (16.20 K/9).
Acquired along with IF/OF Chris Bostick in the trade that sent Ross Detwiler to the Texas Rangers, 23-year-old right-hander Abel De Los Santos was a surprise call-up to the nation's capital when the Nationals brought him up from their Double-A affiliate in July. He made just two appearances in the majors before he went back down, but handled himself well in his first exposure above Double-A ball.
"[Abel] De Los Santos is a starter-made-reliever and since he's gone to the bullpen his velocity and stuff has spiked," GM Mike Rizzo said last winter. "He had a terrific year last year and we think that he'll come really quickly."
De Los Santos did move quickly. He's a long shot for the Nationals' bullpen at the start of the year, but after he spent the majority of the season at Double-A last season, a move to Triple-A would make sense and he's one of several relievers who could help out at some point in 2016.
• Trevor Gott - 23 yo, RHP - 2015 Stats: AA - (1-0), 8 SV, 18 G, 19 ⅔ IP, 3.20 ERA, 2.48 FIP, 7 walks (3.20 BB/9), 20 Ks (9.15 K/9); AAA - (0-0), 7 G, 8 ⅓ IP, 0.00 ERA, 3.36 FIP, 5 walks (5.40 BB/9), 10 Ks (10.80 K/9); MLB - (4-2), 48 G, 47 ⅔ IP, 3.02 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 16 walks (3.02 BB/9), 27 Ks (5.10 K/9).
A 2013 6th Round pick by the San Diego Padres, Trevor Gott was acquired by the Los Angeles Angels in 2014 was then traded to the Nationals this past December in the deal that sent Yunel Escobar from Washington to LA. Gott debuted for LA last season, showing off a 96 mph fastball that opposing hitters had a .217 AVG against in his first 48 appearances in the majors.
Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo talked him up after this winter's trade as a potential future late-inning arm.
"That's always the hope for guys who have great arms and have the mentality to pitch later in the games," he said.
"[Gott] proved with the Angels that he's capable of doing it. We foresee putting him in the mix with our other bullpen guys that really have plus stuff and we feel good about the depth and the quality of guys that we have in there."
Gott said he would love to close one day, but for now he'll just do whatever the Nationals ask him to do.
"I think all relievers' goal is to become a closer at some point," he explained. "But that's a long-term goal, right now I'm just trying to fit in with the Nationals, wherever they want me and whatever I can do to help the team win."
• Matt Grace - 27 yo, LHP - 2015 Stats: AAA - (0-2), 1 SV, 38 G, 48 ⅔ IP, 2.40 ERA, 3.41 FIP, 16 walks (2.81 BB/9), 31 Ks (6.48 K/9); MLB - (2-1), 26 G, 17 IP, 4.24 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 8 walks (4.24 BB/9), 14 Ks (7.41 K/9).
Matt Grace, 27, a 2010 8th Round pick, made his major league debut with the Nationals in 2015 after putting up solid numbers as a reliever at Triple-A Syracuse. Grace made 26 appearances out of the Nats' pen last season, over which he held left-handers to a .282/.333/.316 line, with right-handers putting up a .417/.500/.571 line against him.
He said this winter that he learned from his first stint in the majors and he knows what to expect now when/if the Nats call upon him again.
"It's really just staying with your game plan and knowing what makes you successful and trying not to get away from that," Grace explained.
"Because there are so many things once you're in the big leagues that I think you can get distracted by and you just have to stay true to what got you there and true to what you know makes you successful. There were a couple times there where I thought I lost sight of that, but talking to guys like Doug Harris and Paul Menhart, and trying to get back to focusing on what I can do and what makes me individually successful in those situations."
• Shawn Kelley - 31 yo, RHP - 2015 Stats: (2-2), 53 G, 51 ⅓ IP, 2.45 ERA, 2.57 FIP, 15 walks (2.63 BB/9), 63 Ks (11.05 K/9).
The Nationals signed Shawn Kelley to a 3-year/$15M deal in early December, bringing the veteran right-hander on to work in the back of the bullpen after a solid season in San Diego for the 31-year-old reliever. Kelley features a low-90s fastball (91.9 mph AVG) and a wipeout slider (82.8 AVG), which hitters had a .169 batting average against in 2015.
"He's got a really good sinking fastball," Rizzo said, "and a wipeout slider and a guy that's pitched leverage innings for different teams, proved that he could do it in big markets like New York City and was great with the Padres, so we liked what we saw when he pitched against us at times and scouts really liked his demeanor and his aggressive nature on the mound."
Kelley told reporters that working in a number of roles over the years has prepared him for whatever the Nationals ask him to do in 2016 and beyond.
"I think the more experience you have in any situation, you're going to get better and allow yourself to thrive," he told reporters this winter.
"So, New York, I closed a little bit for a time and did some eighth inning stuff, I pitched in the seventh inning, I've mopped up innings before in my career. Baseball never fails to throw new situations at you, but I think the more experience you have and the more you've dealt with the better you can handle something new thrown your way."
Will Kelley slot in as the Nationals' new eighth-inning/set-up man? Will he bring his horse head back out at some point?
• Nick Lee - 25 yo, LHP - 2015 Stats: A+ - (1-1), 9 SV, 20 G, 28 IP, 2.57 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 14 walks (4.50 BB/9), 28 Ks (9.00 K/9); AA - (2-0), 1 SV, 20 G, 24 IP, 3.75 ERA, 3.48 FIP, 19 walks (7.13 BB/9), 29 Ks (10.88 K/9).
The Nationals added 2011 18th Round pick Nick Lee to the 40-Man roster in November to protect the left-hander from selection in the Rule 5 Draft after he pitched at High-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg in Washington's system in 2015.
Lee, 24, moved from starting on occasion to full-time relief work in 2014, and as the Nationals noted in a press release on the southpaw being added to the 40-Man, he has "[thrived] in that role, striking out over one batter per nine innings 271 strikeouts in 249 IP) while maintaining 9.8 strikeouts per 9.0 innings ratio."
Lee surrendered just one home run in 52 IP combined between Potomac and Harrisburg last season, while holding opposing hitters to a .216 AVG.
• Rafael Martin - 31 yo, RHP - 2015 Stats: AAA - (5-5), 12 SV, 46 G, 56 IP, 3.21 ERA, 2.57 FIP, 16 walks (2.57 BB/9), 68 Ks (10.93 K/9); MLB - (2-0), 13 G, 12 ⅓ IP, 5.11 ERA, 4.76 FIP, 5 walks (3.65 BB/9), 25 Ks (18.24 K/9).
Rafael Martin debuted in the majors as a 30-year-old last April when the Nationals called the right-hander up to work out of the bullpen for a four-outing stint. He came back up in September and made nine appearances over the last month-plus of the season, posting a 2.45 ERA with three walks and 14 Ks in 7 ⅓ innings pitched over which he held opposing hitters to a combined .145/.241/.346 line.
Martin struck out five straight batters in his MLB debut against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park and recorded four Ks in a two-inning outing in early September working with mostly a four-seam fastball that he throws at an average of 89.2 mph and an 80 mph slider. Now-former manager Matt Williams was impressed with the way Martin attacked the strike zone in his first major league outing against Boston.
"Came in there and filled the strike zone up," Williams said.
"We saw that all Spring from him and that's important for our bullpen that we can have a guy that can do that. It's been a little rough the last few days with a walking guys, hitting guys, that type of stuff, and today he just filled it up, he was great."
Martin held major league hitters to a .235 AVG with his fastball in the majors, and hung a few sliders that got crushed for three of the four home runs he allowed. He's a long shot to make the Opening Day pen, but will likely start at AAA and wait for the call...
• Jonathan Papelbon - 35 yo, RHP - 2015 Stats: (4-3), 24 SV, 59 G, 63 ⅓ IP, 2.13 ERA, 3.70 FIP, 12 walks (1.71 BB/9), 56 Ks (7.96 K/9).
GM Mike Rizzo apparently never received the "real baseball offer" for veteran closer Jonathan Papelbon that would have convinced him to trade the 35-year-old right-hander he acquired in the much-maligned deadline move last July, so Papelbon seems set to return to the nation's capital and the ninth inning role he took over upon landing in D.C.
His eleventh major league season ended earlier than expected when he was suspended for three games by Major League Baseball for throwing at/near Baltimore Orioles' infielder Manny Machado's head and four games by the Nationals for his role in the late-season dugout altercation with Bryce Harper. He filed a grievance over the Nats' decision to suspend him without pay, which has yet to be settled.
When the Nationals traded Drew Storen last month, Rizzo addressed the fact that Papelbon remained on the roster although there were rumors he was available this winter.
"We see Papelbon as being one of our late-inning relievers," he said. "He’s been very effective at it his entire career, including last year except for the last portion of the season. This guy is a quality reliever, quality closer. He’s been in the biggest stage that you can be in. He pitched the last out of a World Series game and has a World Series ring. He knows how to win. He brings a swagger to the bullpen and he’s a guy that we’re going to rely on to pitch late and leverage innings."
• Oliver Perez - 34 yo, LHP - 2015 Stats: (2-4), 70 G, 41 IP, 4.17 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 15 walks (3.29 BB/9), 51 Ks (11.20 K/9).
Oliver Perez moved to the bullpen on the recommendation of Spin Williams, the organization's pitching instructor, after he pitched at Double-A in the Nationals' system in 2011 after flaming out as a starter as a 28-year-old with the New York Mets.
Perez has pitched in relief exclusively since, and the 34-year-old lefty has a 3.31 ERA and 225 Ks in 182 ⅓ IP as a reliever with the Seattle Mariners (2012-13), Arizona Diamonbacks (2014-15) and Houston Astros who acquired him for the stretch run and took him into the postseason.
The Nationals brought him back to the organization with a 2-year/$7M deal this winter to take on left-handers in the late innings, a role he's embraced over the years.
"I kind of like it because I get a chance to pitch every day and that's the game I love," he explained this winter.
"It's a really good experience being in a tough situation almost every day, because I can decide a game. Sometimes it can be hard, but it's fun at the same moment. You've got more love, more passion for the job you do."
Perez held left-handers to a .194/.242/.290 line last season, and he finished the season with a .238/.319/.362 line against overall.
"He's a veteran presence, a guy that's had two really, really good seasons," Rizzo said after the signing.
"A really good left-on-left guy, and if he falls back to where he was two years ago, he was good against both sides of the plate. He gives a good veteran arm to go with some of our young electric arms and we feel that he'll be a good fit for us."
• Yusmeiro Petit - 31 yo, RHP - 2015 Stats: (1-1), 1 SV, 42 G, 1 GS, 76 IP, 3.67 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 15 walks (1.78 BB/9), 59 Ks (6.99 K/9).
Craig Stammen was non-tendered this winter (and eventually signed on in Cleveland), but the Nationals went out and signed veteran reliever Yusmeiro Petit as a potential long-man and versatile addition to the bullpen, giving new Nats' manager Dusty Baker options in the mid-to-late innings.
"He's a terrific major league pitcher," GM Mike Rizzo said of Petit. "He's a good swing guy, started games for a World Championship team. Pitched leverage innings in the playoffs and he's battle-tested and really gives the manager a lot of freedom and diversity. He can start, he can relieve, he can pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen, he can spot start for you and he can be in the rotation for you."
Petit got a 1-year/$3M deal from the Nationals on December 14th after the Giants non-tendered him on December 2nd.
The deal pays him $2.5M in 2016 and contains a club option for 2017 (at $3M) that is guaranteed if he reaches 80 IP in 2016.
He is, of course, best remembered in the nation's capital for his fairly spectacular six-inning outing in relief in Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS, when he carried San Francisco through innings 12-17 of the epic 6 hour, 23 minute extra inning 2-1 win in Washington which put the Giants up 2-0 in the series they won in four games.
• Felipe Rivero - 24 yo, LHP - 2015 Stats: AAA - (0-2), 8 G, 6 ⅔ IP, 6.75 ERA, 3.91 FIP, five walks (6.75 BB/9), 5 Ks (6.75 K/9); MLB - (2-1), 2 SV, 49 G, 48 ⅓ IP, 2.79 ERA, 2.64 FIP, 11 walks (2.05 BB/9), 43 Ks (8.01 K/9).
Felipe Rivero, and his 95.5 mph fastball, which he dialed up to 99.8 on at least one occasion according to Fangraphs, and against which opposing hitters had just a .226 AVG, was one of the pleasant surprises for the Nationals in 2015.
Acquired in the February 2014 trade that sent Nate Karns to the Tampa Rays, Rivero moved to the bullpen at the start of the season, was called up for the first time in April, came back in June and stuck around, holding left-handed hitters to a combined .198/.242/.244 line and right-handed hitters to a .198/.255/.344 line on the year.
Mike Rizzo identified him this winter as one of the pitchers he trusted to work late, high-leverage innings, though with the signing of Oliver Perez, and Rivero's ability to work multiple innings against left and right-handers, he could slot in as the Nationals' left-handed long-man this season. Matt Williams too, before he was relieved of his duties on the Nats' bench, talked about Rivero's versatility as a big plus for the lefty.
"His stuff profiles in any inning," Williams said late last season.
"He's new to this, so first year out he's done pretty well and tonight's an example of what he can do. He can work through righties and lefties and go multiple innings if needed. So we'll see what the future holds."
• Sammy Solis - 27 yo, LHP - 2015 Stats: AA - (0-3), 2 SV, 11 G, 13 ⅓ IP, 6.75 ERA, 3.19 FIP, five walks (3.38 BB/9), 11 Ks (7.43 K/9); AAA - (0-0), 2 SV, 9 G, 13 ⅓ IP, 2.03 ERA, 2.86 FIP, five walks (3.38 BB/9), 11 Ks (7.43 K/9); MLB - (1-1), 18 G, 21 ⅓ IP, 3.38 ERA, 3.46 FIP, four walks (1.69 BB/9), 17 Ks (7.17 K/9).
Sammy Solis was the Nationals' second pick in the 2010 Draft after they took Bryce Harper first overall that June.
Solis, 27, debuted in the majors three years after Harper, after battling a number of injuries, Tommy John surgery and back problems, but eventually broke through as a reliever in 2015, making eighteen appearances out of the Nationals' bullpen over which he threw everything he had at opposing hitters, with a two-seamer, four-seamer, change, curve, knuckle curve and slider.
The call-up and 21 ⅓ innings he pitched for the Nationals surprised him, he admitted this winter.
"Honestly, I didn't expect to really get up at all. Maybe a September call-up, and I was fortunate enough to get called up in April, and now that I have a little taste of it, it's left me wanting more, definitely. And I'm just excited to get there and hopefully find a spot."
Where he fits in is unclear since he has a few left-handers ahead of him on the depth chart, but Solis said he learned an important lesson when he came up to the majors.
"I learned that I can compete at that level," Solis said. "I had ups and downs for sure, but what rookie doesn't, I think. I'm just excited to go out there, show my stuff and hopefully, we'll see, God-willing, grab a spot."
• Blake Treinen - 27 yo, RHP - 2015 Stats: AAA - (0-0), 5 G, 12 IP, 0.00 ERA, 1.07 FIP, one walk (0.75 BB/9), 14 Ks (10.50 K/9); MLB - (2-5), 60 G, 67 ⅔ IP, 3.86 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 32 walks (4.26 BB/9), 65 Ks (8.65 K/9).
Blake Treinen's struggles against left-handers last season are well-documented, and something the 27-year-old sinker-balling right-hander acknowledged this winter when he talked about preparing for the 2016 season. Treinen's mid-90s sinking fastballs (which averaged 94.4 to 95.2 mph) and mid-80s slider scream late-inning arm, but left-handers put up a gaudy .336/.425/.509 line against him last season (vs .184/.276/.216 vs RHBs), reducing his usefulness in anything but right-on-right matchups.
He acknowledged this winter that it was an issue and something he had to remedy going forward.
"Obviously there were some issues with consistency against lefties," Treinen explained. "That to me is the biggest glaring issue that I need to fix. There are times when things went really well, there are times when things went pretty darn bad. So the consistency side of things is my biggest focus for this offseason."
If he can figure out how to get left-handers out with his sinker (or develop another pitch that will neutralize them), he could end up playing a big role in the late innings.