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Washington Nationals take a risk sticking with their late-inning bullpen trio

After bringing back Brandon Kintzler, are the Washington Nationals assured a dependable back end to their bullpen?

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that the Washington Nationals had a bullpen problem for the first half of last season. Their relief corps entered play on July 16 with just 251.1 innings pitched — the fewest in baseball — yet had allowed the second-most homers in the NL (46) and owned a staggering .825 OPS against.

It was on that day, however, when the front office acquired Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from the Oakland A’s. Two weeks later, the Nats picked up Brandon Kintzler in a trade deadline deal with the Minnesota Twins to round out a new-look late-inning trio.

The results were almost immediate. In 75.2 combined innings for Washington, the three relievers dubbed the “law firm of Kintzler, Madson & Doolittle” converted 23 saves, struck out 71 hitters, walked 16 and allowed just four home runs. The rest of the bullpen stabilized as a result, and the Nationals had the second-best bullpen ERA in the NL (3.36) after the trade deadline.

Both Doolittle and Madson were acquired under team control through 2018, and beyond in Doolittle’s case. Kintzler hit free agency this winter, but the Nats brought him back on a two-year deal earlier this month. Now Koda Glover, Enny Romero, Sammy Solis and Shawn Kelley project to fill out the rest of the bullpen, giving the Nats three lefties but not much depth in their relief corps.

If the Nats are going to be a successful team next season, they’re going to need their bullpen — particularly the back end — to carry over its success from the second half of last year. Yet Steamer, a reputable projection system featured on FanGraphs, projects all three relievers to regress in 2018. While Steamer typically makes conservative estimations, it’s worth investigating whether the firm can sustain its production from last season.

The left-handed Doolittle is entering his age-31 season after enjoying his best year since 2014. In 2015, a torn rotator cuff and subsequent shoulder strain to his throwing shoulder limited him to just 12 appearances, but he’s since rebounded to the tune of a 2.99 ERA and 10.7 K/9 in 97 appearances over the past two years. The only drawback to that success is that he’s made two trips to the DL for issues with that shoulder, once each season.

In order to limit the stress on his shoulder, Doolittle relies very heavily on his fastball. According to Brooks Baseball, he threw his four-seamer 87.6% of the time last year, occasionally going with a slider or changeup and very rarely his splitter. While throwing one pitch can make a pitcher predictable (Ross Detwiler comes to mind), as long as his fastball velocity doesn’t begin to drop Doolittle should be a more than serviceable option at closer.

With age still on his side and consistent strikeout numbers throughout his career, Doolittle’s only worry should be his health. Madson, however, is a much more interesting case. The immaculate resurrection of his career in 2015 has seen him become one of the better and dependable relievers in all of baseball. Over the last three years, Madson is one of eight relief pitchers to throw at least 180 innings and put together an ERA of 2.55 or better.

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Despite inching closer and closer to 40, Madson’s fastball velocity has actually increased each of the past two seasons. His 1.99 FIP between Oakland and Washington last year indicates his success was no fluke. Madson did have a low-leaning HR/FB rate (6.9% vs. league average 9.5%), but even if he allows a few more long balls there’s no sign other than his age that he’ll regress drastically next season.

If there’s any member of this trio to worry about, it’s Kintzler. His early career was defined by a checkered injury history as a minor leaguer and independent ballplayer. Kintzler didn’t establish himself as a reliable reliever until 2013 with the Milwaukee Brewers, then was released two years later when rehabilitation from a torn tendon in his left knee hit several snags.

While he proved to be a reliable closer for the Twins over the past two years, his numbers from last season suggest he may be due for a regression. Kintzler is a groundball pitcher so he keeps the ball low and away from hitters relatively well. However, between his ERA/FIP split (3.03/3.77), ghastly low strikeout totals (4.9 K/9) and unsustainable 15% infield fly ball rate, a steady decline may be in store for Kintzler in 2018.

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The rest of the bullpen doesn’t provide much depth for Washington if one of their late-inning arms go down with an injury or fail to emulate last season’s success. Both Glover and Romero showed flashes of potential but have had several injury troubles of their own. Solis, who is also injury-prone, and Kelley, a Tommy John recipient, have put together very strong seasons in a Nationals uniform before but couldn’t put it all together last year.

It’s by no means a safe bet for the Nationals to gamble on their current back-end of their bullpen, but it appears to be one their willing to take. They’re certainly in a better position than they were with Blake Treinen handling ninth-inning duties at the start of 2017, but the Nats may have another hole for a trade-deadline acquisition to fill come July next season.