When veteran reliever Jonathan Papelbon ended up on the DL for the first time in his career in mid-June last summer, after struggling with his velocity and command at times, Washington Nationals’ manager Dusty Baker was forced to make decisions on how to best use his remaining relievers in the closer’s absence.
Baker was asked at the time if he felt Shawn Kelley had the stuff and make-up to make it as a closer.
"I don't know. That's a very good question,” Baker said.
“It's just that you'd have thought that if he had closer makeup or if he was going to be a closer it would have been before he got to his fourth or fifth team, No. 1, and No. 2, we have to really be guarded, because this guy, he had Tommy John in high school and then he had another Tommy John after, so we're very cautious of how he feels.”
In spite of the concerns about potentially over-using Kelley, Baker said they would consider the possibility of turning the ninth over to the veteran righty while they needed a closer.
“[GM] Mike [Rizzo] and I will put our heads together before the game and try to play out as many scenarios as you can,” Baker said, though he noted that matchups would have to be considered.
“What if this guy's up? What if this guy's up? Are they going to pinch hit for this [guy] or would it be with a righty, a lefty?
“You've just got to figure that out and some of it is as we go and as the scoreboard dictates what we do."
The decision they made was to go with Kelley until Papelbon returned.
“Mike and I talked about it and we think he's best suited for that until [Papelbon] gets back,” Baker explained.
He also said that he would continue to use Kelley cautiously as he had since the start of the season.
“It’s not any different now than it has been all year,” Baker told reporters, as quoted by Washington Post writer Chelsea Janes.
“He just wasn’t the focal point as the closer. We’re treating it the same way we did from the time he got here.”
Between June 23 and July 30th, when the Nationals acquired Mark Melancon from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kelley converted 6 of 8 save opportunities, posting a 3.24 ERA, two walks (1.08 BB/9), 30 Ks (16.20 K/9) and a .262/.279/.615 line against in 16 2⁄3 innings, before returning to a set-up role.
Kelley finished the first year of his 3-year/$15M deal with the Nationals with a 2.64 ERA, a 2.97 FIP, 11 walks (1.71 BB/9) and 80 Ks (12.41 K/9) in 58 IP, over which he held opposing hitters to a .193/.232/.403 line in a 1.1 fWAR campaign.
His season ended with the right-hander walking off the mound late in Game 5 of the Nationals’ NLDS matchup with the LA Dodgers, having experienced numbness in the fingers of his right hand.
With the loss of feeling, Kelley explained, he wasn’t sure he could control where he was throwing the ball.
"I didn't know if I could throw anything where I wanted to or know where the ball was going. I told them that, and they decided to get me out of there," Kelley explained, as quoted by including CSN Mid-Atlantic writer Chase Hughes after the game.
Rizzo has assured reporters this winter, including MASN’s Mark Zuckerman that Kelley will be ready for the start of his second season in D.C.
“He’s fine,” Rizzo said in late October, before reiterating the message in December.
“He’ll be ready for the offseason and his preparation for Spring Training.”
Will the Nationals, who tried to sign a number of closers, including Melancon, Kenley Jansen and others this winter, turn to Kelley again in the ninth this season?
In a Fangraphs.com article on Monday, author Ryan Pollack argued that it was Kelley’s turn, though he didn’t offer any support for his claim that the veteran right-hander is, “... the leading candidate to close games in D.C.”
He did, however, make a solid argument why Kelley should get the nod.
ESPN.com’s Buster Olney linked to that article this morning, and noted that the bigger question, aside from who will close, is how the rest of the Nationals’ bullpen will be arranged, with Blake Treinen, Trevor Gott, Koda Glover, Sammy Solis and Oliver Perez likely to claim spots and a number of non-roster invitees and unproven arms fighting for spots in the Opening Day bullpen.
Second-year Nationals’ pitching coach Mike Maddux, in an interview with reporters this winter, seemed to argue that the best approach might just be to match up according to need every night as opposed to assigning specific bullpen roles when he was asked for his thoughts on who could get a chance to close.
“I think we have a couple guys that have what it takes to finish the ninth inning,” Maddux said.
“I’ve told guys this in the past: Is your ninth inning pitcher your best pitcher? Not necessarily.
“Sometimes that game is won in the sixth with two outs, [or] it might be won in the seventh with the meat of the order coming up, the eighth inning you’ve got traffic, you need a ground ball, here comes Blake Treinen whistling a ground ball.
“Why pin that guy into the last inning when the game might be won in the seventh or eighth?
“So we were fortunate enough to have some guys that have the ability to miss a bat. Shawn Kelley, a lot of strikeouts per innings pitched. Blake Treinen, a lot of outs per pitch thrown, gets the ball on the ground. You saw Blake Treinen in Spring Training, you saw Blake Treinen in October, that was puppy dog to bulldog. He was a beast at the end of the year. Could he handle the ninth? Sure. You might need a ground ball in the seventh. Might have the meat of that order coming up, everybody trying to lift and a homer beats you and he keeps it on the ground, might need him in the eighth, might need him in the seventh. Shawn Kelley, same way. Can they handle the ninth? I think they can.”
Will the Nationals ask Kelley to handle the ninth? Or Treinen? Will they match up on a nightly basis according to who’s up and who’s available? As Olney noted in closing out his section on the Nats’ pen, “... as the Nationals go to camp, their bullpen will be the team's biggest question mark, no matter who is the closer.”