For a few moments Thursday afternoon, the discussion moved off the Washington Nationals’ bullpen.
The immediate future of Max Scherzer, who revealed that the stress fracture in the knuckle of his right ring finger might keep him out of action on Opening Day, was a momentary distraction, however.
It wasn’t long before the discussion returned to the back end of Washington’s bullpen, and who might end up closing out games for the Nationals in 2017.
Nationals’ skipper Dusty Baker talked on the first day of Spring Training about in-house options like Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen, Koda Glover and veteran reliever Joe Nathan.
Baker said that he didn’t think it would be closer-by-committee, in spite of the fact that there wasn’t a clear-cut favorite to claim the role.
“I don’t like by-committee,” he explained, “because when the phone rings I want guys to know mentally when they might be in the game.”
On Thursday, Baker got a look at some of the options in action for the first time this Spring and talked to reporters afterwards about what he saw and what he might do in the ninth inning.
He reiterated that he didn’t think closer-by-committee was the way to go.
“Most teams like to have one guy,” Baker said, “because I just noticed that closer-by-committee really doesn’t really work, so I’d like to have my bullpen set up — boom, boom, boom — seventh inning guy, eighth inning guy if possible, that’s the way the game has gone.
“The days of Rollie Fingers going three innings and Dave Righetti going 3 1⁄3, those days are gone, they’re not conditioned to do that.”
So who’s it going to be? Kelley? Treinen? Glover? Nathan? Enny Romero?
“All those guys that you just named are candidates,” Baker told reporters. “Could be Koda Glover, could be who we decide on.
“I mean, you look at certain teams, certain organizations like Oakland, they always come up with a pretty good closer and so we have a few candidates on who we think — and you don’t know — what we think a guy can handle, we really don’t know until you get into action. You mentioned Kelley — Kelley has had two Tommy Johns, so we’ve got to be really careful with him, because if he pitched two days, we had to give him a day or two off, and so is that how closers — usually closers get two or three days and then they might not get a week’s worth if it’s not there and you’d hate to have something happen to Kelley and then all of a sudden now you’re looking for two Kelleys.
“Somebody to replace Kelley in the set-up role and somebody to replace Kelley if he’s a closer, so this is not your optimum situation.”
Kelley told reporters, including Washington Times’ writer Todd Dybas, that he’s ready for whatever the Nationals ask him to do:
“I’ve been around a long time, I’ve pitched in every role and I take the ball when I get it,” Kelley said. “If somebody wants to name a closer, then they can name a closer. If they don’t want to name a closer, they don’t name a closer.”
“We’ll see,” Baker said, when Kelley’s comments were brought up. “And Joe Nathan, what does he have 400 saves?”
The 42-year-old, 16-year veteran has 377 career saves, but he has one save total in the last two seasons as he’s worked his way back from Tommy John surgery.
Baker, who managed Nathan early in the right-hander’s career in San Francisco (1999-2002), got his first look at the veteran reliever on Wednesday.
“I had Joe as a kid,” Baker said. “He had the same exuberance and enthusiasm that he had as a kid. [Pitching coach] Mike [Maddux] said, whoever is in his group, he’ll work you to death if you try to keep up with him and I urged the young guys to try to emulate him, watch him and keep up with him. He’ll show you how to work. The ball was coming out pretty good today with Joe, plus, you look at him, he doesn’t look 40 years old, I mean, I knew him as a skinny kid, now he’s a strong man.”
While Nathan is a long shot to claim the closer’s role at this point in his career, he’s one of the options the Nationals, who are still rumored to be searching for relievers, have in camp competing for bullpen spots.
“There are some young kids out there that I haven’t seen,” Baker said.
“And I remember when I was in LA, we didn’t have a closer when we left Spring Training and then Steve Howe was our closer out of Double-A — and a lot of it depends on — I’ll never forget when Tommy Lasorda asked [Steve] Yeager’s opinion — he was our catcher — did he think that kid could close, and I’m going to rely on my knowledge, Mike’s knowledge, and also I told my catchers today that I’m going to ask your opinion on who you think might have the demeanor, who you think has demonstrated control, which is No. 1 as a closer, cause you can’t have your closer coming out and walking people just because he throws hard, so I depend on my catchers also to get in the equation and give me their opinions.”