In the end, it ultimately didn’t matter as the Nationals managed to escape with a (undeserved) win as Bryce Harper hit a walk-off three run blast.
Win or no win, this is nothing new. So far, the Nats have enjoyed great starting pitching, good hitting, and are still sitting just above .500, if only due to the fact that the Nats have had a lead or been tied with their opponents four times, only for the bullpen to cede the lead or lose the tie.
Without said bullpen meltdowns, the Nats are handily sitting atop the NL East with around nine or ten wins. Instead, they’re just holding on to the lead at 7-5.
Even worse, though, is the fact that all of these blown games have come against teams expected to be mediocre at best, such as the Marlins and Phillies.
The bullpen has performed horribly. Collectively, they have a 6.29 ERA (fifth-worst in the majors), are allowing 2.62 HR/9 (second-worst in the majors), and have been good for a .292 batting average against, (fifth-worst in the majors).
Most Nats fans probably have one or two more gray hairs by the time the game is over, if they haven’t yet pulled out those hairs.
Here’s the good news: It’s really early, and the Nationals are still in first place.
Here’s the bad news: The Nats may be in first, but if the bullpen keeps pitching the way it does, it’s going to be really hard to stay there unless they get some much-needed help.
Ultimately, to win the amount of games Dusty Baker and the Nationals want to win, you need a good bullpen. Right now, the bullpen is anything but good.
Nobody—and when I say nobody, I really mean nobody—has been consistent.
Everyone from Blake Treinen to Koda Glover to Joe Blanton just doesn’t seem to have it this year; big hits are being ceded in untimely spots, and no lead ever seems safe.
The Nationals have already waded into the depths of their minor-league system, bringing up Matt Albers while they wait and hope that Joe Nathan is able to re-capture what he used to have. Past that, they have Matt Grace, Trevor Gott, Jacob Turner and Rafael Martin. All those names, and yet it’s quite doubtful that any of them will make a meaningful impact at the major-league level.
Hypothetically, Rizzo and Baker could wait and hope for Blake Treinen to figure things out, but if things still aren’t working by the end of the month, the team cannot afford to keep putting him out there every time with the game on the line.
And yes, there is the possibility that Shawn Kelley takes over as closer and does well, while Treinen returns to his old spot and regains what he had, but even in that best-case scenario, you still have four or five guys that aren’t pitching that well.
So, the solution here is pretty obvious, right? The Nats need to go out, sooner rather than later, and find themselves a few good relievers to fix their bullpen. Duh!
If it was that easy, the Nats would have already done it. They tried to do just that this past offseason, making offers to every big-name and small-name reliever on the board.
None of them chose to come to Washington, likely due to the large amounts of deferred money included in almost all of their contracts.
Then came shopping around the trade market, which, as it often does, resulted in nothing (unless you count Enny Romero, which hasn’t counted for much yet).
At this point, the common logic is to wait for some team to collapse and take their closer off their hands at the trade deadline in exchange for a few good prospects to help kick off their rebuild.
Unfortunately for the Nats, they sent away their best trade chips not named Victor Robles to acquire Adam Eaton, giving Dane Dunning, Reynaldo Lopez, and Lucas Giolito to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for the outfielder.
Unless the Nats are willing to deal Robles and future rotation anchor Erick Fedde—two prospects Rizzo has deemed to be vital to the Nats’ future—for what will be a comparatively low return, the team doesn’t have much room to make a big splash on the trade market.
As a result of all that, Rizzo and the Lerners have worked themselves and their team into a corner where they might have to sell the future of the club away for one reliever because they came up short this winter, and already dealt a few of their high-end prospects.
There are a few potential roads for the team to go down; they could do something like they did in 2015, when they traded a non-elite prospect (looking at you, Austin Voth) in exchange for an aging and ineffective closer, Jonathan Papelbon.
But, just for the sake of it, let’s say that Rizzo and the Lerners put their heads together and decide that 2017 is the year they finally go for it, once and for all, that they’re willing to sell the entire farm, including Robles and Fedde, for a closer.
Then there’s another problem: there aren’t too many good options.
Most of the league’s best closers that are actually worth selling the farm for are on teams with a shot of contending; the Kimbrels, Melancons and Chapmans of the world are all on teams that won’t be blowing things up at the deadline.
Other guys worth a look, such as Alex Colome of the Rays or A.J. Ramos of the Marlins, play for teams that are thinking ahead for the long-term future and will likely want to hold on to their guys.
(I’m also fully aware that David Robertson exists, but it just seems unlikely that the Nats will give up a top-tier prospect such as Robles, which the White Sox have indicated is their demand so they can pay a hefty contract for an aging reliever.)
There also may be an in-between: give up a few good, not great prospects and maybe some sort of low-level major league talent (Wilmer Difo?) in exchange for a closer who won’t implode but isn’t exactly dominant, or one with injury history, such as Sean Doolittle, Kelvin Herrera, or Tony Watson (if the Pirates struggle again this season).
Even if the Nats do acquire a decent enough closer, they’ll still only have two reliable guys in the pen, Kelley and whoever closes.
If Kelley becomes closer, then you still have to rely on Treinen—or someone—to get better, and even then there are only two competent relievers.
So, what can the Nats do? First off, even though it feels like it’s been a while, the season is still very young, and plenty of guys can look one way in April and then another way for the rest of the year (see: Oliver Perez).
With that in mind, somebody is bound to get better — out of the entire bullpen, at least one or two relievers will figure out what they’ve been doing wrong this season.
Plus, Romero has had a few promising outings as of late, and Glover seems to be on the upswing.
Shawn Kelley is historically bad in April, and Joe Blanton says that he has a mechanical problem with his slider he just needs to figure out how to fix.
However, if the Nationals do find themselves in a position in which their bullpen desperately needs a mid-season overhaul, the most logical solution would be to find an in-house candidate that can actually get the job done (like Kelley), and build around him with a flurry of trades that don’t involve blue-chip prospects, or find a mid-tier closer and build around him with a slightly smaller flurry of trades.
The Nationals are very fortunate in one thing: unlike other years where the bullpen has struggled, this bullpen seems to be the only issue for the team early this year — the starting lineup is mainly doing its job well, and the starting rotation is pitching like they should be.
That means the Nats can not worry about anything else at the deadline and truly focus on improving their bullpen.
Until then, Nats fans can seek solace in knowing that they aren’t Cardinals or Rangers fans, two teams that have somehow managed to put together worse bullpens than the Nats, and know that they have guys like Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy to save them when the bullpen isn’t up to snuff.