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Nationals’ Dusty Baker talks Nats’ closer search as pitchers and catchers report

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Dusty Baker told reporters today that the Nationals could still do something at the back of the bullpen, but someone will emerge if it comes to that this Spring.

MLB: Winter Meetings Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Dusty Baker didn’t seem too concerned about the Washington Nationals potentially heading into the 2017 campaign without an experienced closer when he spoke to reporters at the Winter Meetings in early December.

“The winter is not over yet,” Baker said, “so you can't be fearful of something that still has a chance to fill that position. So, it would be different if we were in, you know, late February, you know, late January, early February.”

Even if they reached that point, Baker explained, he believes someone will step up and claim the role.

“Somebody always emerges. I believe that, that somebody will come forward. They will separate themselves from the pack. But in the meantime, we're still looking to fill that void.”

The Nationals, as of today, February 14th, are still looking to fill that void as pitchers and catchers report to Washington and Houston’s new shared Spring Training facility for the start of Spring Training.

In his first meeting with reporters this afternoon, Baker once again addressed the Nats’ search for a closer and discussed some of the internal options who could fill the ninth inning role.

Mike Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office reportedly made plays for Melancon, Kenley Jansen, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, among others, and there are still rumors of interest in Chicago White Sox’ closer David Robertson, but as of today, barring any further deals, it’s looking like one of the in-house options will get the gig.

“Without a real bona fide closer, like I said, somebody always emerges,” Baker reiterated this afternoon.

“I don’t like by committee,” Baker continued, “because when the phone rings I want guys to know mentally when they might be in the game. So we’ll come up with that and if we have to still tweak and experiment — I mean, last year, don’t forget, we didn’t start out knowing the roles of the guys here, other than [Jonathan Papelbon].

“We didn’t know where we were going to use [Felipe] Rivero, we didn’t know where we were going to use [Shawn] Kelley. We didn’t know where we were going to use a lot of the guys that ended up emerging.

“But we learned which guys can pitch a lot and which guys have been injured and which guys need some rest and time off.”

The consensus seems to be that if it’s an in-house option it’s likely to be either Kelley or Blake Treinen. Baker didn’t dismiss that thinking when he asked if it was fair to say the right-handers are fits for the back end of the bullpen if not the closer’s role.

“I mean, somewhere back there,” he said. “Treinen didn’t start off back there [in 2016].

“Treinen started off — couldn’t get lefties out, that was the rep, and he didn’t and he wasn’t in the beginning, and then — everybody is in that situation where you have to learn and he learned, and he ended up getting lefties out equal to righties, so is that fair to say that he’s a candidate for that situation or are we rushing him because you want to him evolve rather quickly, but you want to evolve and not destroy him.

“I’ve seen guys’ confidence get destroyed too, and so I’m going to call upon my past and what I’ve seen.”

Treinen earned his first major league save last season, and as Baker mentioned, he figured out how to get lefties out, holding left-handers to a .218/.348/.390 line and right-handed hitters to a .221/.296/.305 line on the year. Treinen finished his 2016 campaign with a 2.28 ERA, 3.62 FIP, 31 walks (4.16 BB/9) and 63 Ks (8.46 K/9) in 67 innings.

“In Kelley’s case,” Baker continued, “we had to watch and monitor Kelley, because Kelley was one of the guys that I was talking about that has had two Tommy Johns.

“He seems the likely candidate, but we’ve got to see can his arm sustain or else we’ll be looking for somebody else and be without him too. That’s the thing you don’t want.

“Then you’ve got to replace two people. So we’ll see.”

Kelley finished the first year of his 3-year/$15M deal with Washington with a 2.64 ERA, a 2.97 FIP, 11 walks (1.71 BB/9) and 80 Ks (12.41 K/9) in 58 innings, over which he held opposing hitters to a .193/.232/.403 line in a 1.1 fWAR campaign.

Treinen and Kelley aren’t the only options, of course. Baker talked about some of the other arms in camp this Spring.

Joe Nathan is in camp. He’s closed too. I mean, he’s one of the guys — I had him as a kid and I begged the Giants not to trade him. I’m curious to see how much Joe is Joe and so it’s all about performance. We’ll see. I’ll try to leave emotion out of it as much as I can and just go with what I see or what may be.

“Sometimes you go on not only what you see but what you project: ‘Hey, man, if you can do this up here and then down there add that to your arsenal, then you can be even better.’”

And don’t forget hard-throwing right-hander Koda Glover, who has rocketed through the organization since the Nationals drafted him in the 8th Round in 2015.

Glover did, however, struggle late last season and he ended up suffering a torn labrum in his hip that he kept from the team until it was too much to take.

“We’ve got to see how Koda is,” Baker said. “He was one of the guys that was hurt at the end and he was one of the guys that — that was the first time he got hit. We had Koda at the back end of games and he had a little rough time and so — everybody is going to have a rough time, it’s just how you respond to that rough time. That’s big.

“I’ve seen guys get a lot better. I’ve seen guys that can’t handle it. I know about Koda, I know he’s not afraid, but is he too bold? See sometimes you can be too bold too, but he’s at a point -- he’s young, and he definitely has the stuff and who knows, man, might be something else in the works, there always is, once you see what you have and once you see what other teams have and we have enough or we don’t have enough, so...”