Before and after the recently-completed General Managers’ Meetings, Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo talked about what he needs to complete the relief corps before the start of the 2018 campaign.
Having acquired a hard-throwing left-handed closer and veteran eighth-inning arm in one deal with the Oakland Athletics last July, both of whom are under contract, Sean Doolittle through 2018 (at $4.35M) with club options for 2019 (at $6M) and 2020 (at $6.5M), and Ryan Madson, through this season (at $7.5M), Rizzo said there’s plenty of talent on the roster right now, though the potential departure of relievers like Oliver Perez, Brandon Kintzler, Matt Albers, and Joe Blanton (all free agents) could leave some holes.
“We’re going to be active in the bullpen market again,” Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies earlier this month.
“Fortunately this year, we’ve got some solidified, qualified [relievers] at the back end of games with Sean and Ryan Madson. Left-handed relievers — we really like our stable of lefties with [Sammy] Solis, and [Matt] Grace, and Enny Romero and that group of guys, so we feel good about that.
“The bullpen is something that we’re gonna really keep our eye on, and do our due diligence on and see if we can bolster that beyond what it is already.”
Rizzo reiterated that belief a week later at the GM Meetings in Orlando, FL, telling reporters, as quoted by Washington Post writer Chelsea Janes, that it’d be hard to improve on the late inning options, though a right-handed reliever that could help replace an arm like Kintzler’s, might make sense:
“We feel very comfortable with Madson and Doolittle. We really like the left-handed side of the bullpen that we have with our depth and that,” Rizzo said.
“The bullpen is fairly well set up if we can get [Shawn] Kelley back and [Koda] Glover back — those are two other good pieces we really like.”
With Kelley (bone chips in his right elbow) and Glover (rotator cuff) both working back from injuries, however, Rizzo said they couldn’t rely on either of the right-handers.
“[We will look for right-handed relievers] because of the uncertainty of Kelley and Glover. We think they’re going to be healthy but we really don’t know,” Rizzo said.
“So [a right-handed reliever] is something we would consider, more so than a left-handed reliever.”
Should they be comfortable with the left-handed options in the bullpen though?
Assuming Perez is not coming back, Doolittle, Solis, Grace, and Romero are the left-handed relief options currently on the 40-Man roster, and assuming that 2017 1st Round pick Seth Romero (the only left-hander among the Nationals’ top 10 prospects on MLB.com’s Top 30 or Baseball America’s Top 10), isn’t going to jump from the NY/Penn League to the majors, it might make sense to add some depth to the left-handed bullpen mix as well.
Solis, 29, dealt with injury issues again this past season, missing two and a half months on the DL with nerve irritation in his left elbow before returning too soon in early July and coming back up again later in the month.
Once he was healthy again, Solis put up numbers (2.41 ERA, 8 BB, 22 Ks, .125/.222/.172 line against in 18 2⁄3 IP) that matched what he did in something of a breakout campaign in 2016 (2.41 ERA, 21 BB, 47 Ks, .207/.314/.293 in 41 IP).
On the year, Solis held left-handers to a .227/.277/.364 line and right-handed hitters to a .218/.338/.418 line against.
Now-former Nationals’ skipper Dusty Baker talked this past August about Solis once again struggling to stay healthy after injuring his back in college, undergoing Tommy John surgery back in 2012, and missing time with a knee issue and shoulder soreness back in 2016.
“When healthy, Sammy is, to me, top of the line,” Baker told reporters, “because he can get righties and lefties out.”
“Sammy’s always had the stuff,” he continued when asked about Solis and his role once he returned, “... but he was hurt, which has plagued him some in his career.”
Grace, 28, bounced between Triple-A and the majors again this season, but was on the mound for a career-high 40 appearances and 50 IP over which he put up a 4.32 ERA, 18 walks, and 31 Ks, while holding opposing hitters to a .267/.343/.383 line (.232/.315/.235 vs lefties and .277/.350/.467 vs righties).
When he started to catch on in the Nationals’ bullpen and hang around in the majors this past season, Baker talked about the left-hander earning his trust.
“He’s the guy that was that option guy that you send up and down, up and down because he has options,” Baker explained.
“But he pitched his way on this ballclub and that’s what you want guys to do, you want guys to earn it, and he certainly has earned it.”
“He’s very valuable,” Baker added. “He keeps the ball in the ballpark and keeps the ball on the ground, and gives our defense a chance to make some plays behind him so he’s very valuable, and I’m glad he’s here.”
Will he have to prove himself valuable all over again with a new coaching staff in D.C. this season?
Romero, 26, was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays last Spring, when a roster crunch made him available, and the hard-throwing left-hander (who averaged 97.7 mph with his fastball this season) put up a 3.56 ERA, 23 walks, 65 Ks, and a .251/.331/.406 line against over 55 2⁄3 IP, while putting up reverse splits (.229/.308/.374 vs righties; .291/.371/.462 vs lefties).
Romero missed time with a forearm strain, but returned from the DDL (and a rehab stint), to put up a 1.08 ERA in eight games and 8 1⁄3 IP in September.
Do the Nationals have the left-handed depth they need with Solis, Grace, and Romero?
Should they pursue a Perez-like veteran lefty if the southpaw doesn’t return?
While the focus will, rightly, likely be on adding a right-hander to the back end of the ‘pen, left-handed depth probably wouldn’t hurt given the various injury issues two of the Nationals’ three left-handers have dealt with in the past.