The Washington Nationals’ bullpen has a chance to be great. Not average, not good — great.
Yes, you read that correctly. The team with the worst bullpen ERA in the major leagues (5.34) has a chance to have a bullpen rivaling that of Cleveland’s, Los Angeles’, and Chicago’s come October.
Let’s take a step back for a moment.
Entering Sunday morning, the Nats were fresh off nearly blowing a 10-run lead to the Cincinatti Reds. Yes, a 10-run lead. Yes, the Cincinnati Reds, who, in the garbage pit known as the NL Central, are the moldy apple at the bottom of the pile.
It wasn’t pretty — Austin Adams and Trevor Gott (with respective ERAs at the time of infinity and 45.00) managed to allow a combined seven runs before the Nats called in Oliver Perez and Matt Grace to clean up the mess in the eighth and ninth innings, respectively.
That last sentence doesn’t exactly sound right. Oliver Perez and Matt Grace are the ones who should be getting relieved, the ones who should be in the messes. Instead, they’re the ones expected to get the team out of sticky situations.
And, credit where it’s due — Perez and Grace got the job done. But they aren’t exactly A-list relievers themselves.
The game ended, but it wouldn’t have been a stretch to say both teams felt like they had lost.
As it had been apparent since the second week of April, something had to be done.
Perhaps it was the timing of the incident (close to the trade deadline), perhaps it was the thought of coming so close to blowing a 10-run lead, or perhaps the Athletics were antsy and wanted to deal some pitchers. No matter the cause, this time, something actually happened.
In the early afternoon on Sunday, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Nats had acquired lefty Sean Doolittle and righty Ryan Madson from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Blake Treinen and two prospects (Jesus Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse).
The low cost, Rosenthal pointed out, could be due to Madson’s high price next season and relatively-old age (the Nats will pay him $7.5 million in 2018 for his age-37 season), and Doolittle’s rather comprehensive injury history.
However, as of right now, both are pitching well, and Doolittle may even improve as he accumulates more games after missing part of the season due to injury.
In one fell swoop, Mike Rizzo took Washington’s bullpen from something taken from the pits of hell to “meh”. Average. Decent. Suddenly, the team had a closer in Doolittle — and maybe even two in Madson.
By sending away Treinen and putting Ross on the 60-day DL, the Nats opened up two spots in the bullpen for Doolittle and Madson, which leaves the team with a whopping—count’em—nine relievers. The team is able to swing this due to the fact that they currently aren’t carrying a fifth starter.
When the team brings up old friend Edwin Jackson to start on Tuesday in Anaheim, one reliever, most likely either Austin Adams or Trevor Gott, will be sent down to bring the total to eight relievers.
When Shawn Kelley returns (and we’ll see which Shawn Kelley returns), whichever member of the earlier pair didn’t get sent down will re-acquaint themselves with Syracuse.
Regardless of how he pitches, Kelley simply can’t be a downgrade from the current pitching core, and the quality of the bullpen will remain the same — average.
The real kicker will be when Koda Glover returns, most likely sometime in mid-August. Glover can slot in as a seventh-inning reliever, displacing either Enny Romero or Matt Albers from their newly-relegated spot that they slid into when Doolittle and Madson arrived.
Additionally, Glover will displace either Matt Grace or Joe Blanton from the roster.
Finally, when Glover returns, the Nats will have a true 7-8-9 punch.
The bullpen, anchored by Glover, Madson, and Doolittle, and supported by Matt Albers and Enny Romero, will be, dare I say it, good.
At that point, four out of seven relievers—Madson, Doolittle, Albers, and Glover—will be reliable, and Romero can be considered as such if he continues to perform as he had in the month of June (in which he pitched to an 0.57 ERA).
Just one problem: “Good” bullpens don’t win championships. Great bullpens are the ones that carry teams deep into October, not good ones.
Great bullpens are the bullpens like the Cleveland Indians had last year, with not one, but two elite pitchers, and a surrounding core of very good pitchers.
Great bullpens are the bullpens where, as the team goes down the line, one’s confidence never even comes close to wavering as a new guy enters.
In short, five or six very, very good relievers are what constitute a great bullpen.
Last season, the Nationals had a good—not great, good—bullpen, with one very good reliever (Mark Melancon) surrounded by five or six other good relievers.
The group crumpled when it counted most, and surrendered 3 runs in a heartbreaking 4-3 Game 5 loss in the NLDS.
This time around, the Nats will have two very good relievers — three, if you count Glover, and three or four other guys that don’t exactly inspire confidence, but suffice for now.
Ultimately, when it comes to October, one expects every pitcher in a bullpen to do their job; the closer has to get three outs in the ninth, the setup man and the seventh-inning man have to get their three outs in rapid succession, and the middle relievers have to work efficiently without allowing considerable damage.
Going down the list, one can expect Glover, Doolittle, and Madson to do their jobs, and the team hopes they’ll be able to say the same for Albers and Romero come September.
Oliver Perez can be expected to handle one batter at a time, presumably a lefty.
Past that, the Nats shouldn’t have any other use for him. Assuming the Nats run with a seven-man bullpen, that leaves one spot.
Realistically, Romero and Albers are best suited for low leverage spots in the middle innings in which the team is leading by enough runs that a run here or there means nothing.
Therefore, that final spot belongs to the guy that comes in and get the Nats out of a jam around the sixth inning.
He would come in if the starter only went five innings, and you need a clean sixth. Or, say there are runners on first and second with one out, and you need to get to the seventh without giving up a run — this is your guy.
Unless the Nats are expecting Matt Grace, Trevor Gott, Austin Adams, or Erick Fedde to suddenly be ready for showtime come October, there’s no obvious candidate.
Perhaps it’ll be Shawn Kelley — but Kelley simply hasn’t pitched well this season, and the odds of him finding whatever magic he had in 2016 in quick fashion are slim.
Sure, you could give the aforementioned role to Koda Glover, but then you need someone for the seventh.
Perhaps you hand that off to Matt Albers or Enny Romero, but can you really trust them come October?
No matter how you play it, it’s pretty simple: The Nats still need one more reliever if they want their bullpen to be great, and the only way to get him is through trade.
From a financial standpoint, a new acquisition would ideally be cheap.
Entering July, the Nationals were at the cusp of Major League Baseball’s competitive balance tax line at the $195 million threshold — somewhere around $193 million, according to the Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes’ best estimate.
Initially, the Nats were hoping to perhaps run up to the fence and take a look without hopping it, and with good reason: the penalty on the Nats would be a 20% charge on their overages.
Without a doubt, the team most likely hoped to evade the surcharge. However, when it became clear that it was simply unavoidable, the Nationals didn’t just barely cross the property line the fence separated to make the tax meaningless as possible, as one would expect.
Instead, by adding nearly $4.5 million to their payroll, they catapulted the fence by more than $2 million.
However, it’s unlikely that the Lerner family is willing to shell out much more money than they’ve already put up.
If he wasn’t off the table already, the Chicago White Sox’s David Robertson is now far out of reach with slightly less than half of his $12 million 2017 salary still to pay and the entirety of his $13 million salary in 2018 to shell out.
So who would work?
The Reds’ Raisel Iglesias comes to mind, but his dominant stuff, three remaining seasons of team control, and relatively inexpensive price will drive up the cost of what the Reds wish to acquire for him. Moreover, his lack of playoff experience could drive the Nationals away from him.
There is, however, one remaining low-cost option, both in terms of return on trade and financially.
Pat Neshek of the Philadelphia Phillies is owed slightly less than $3.25 million over the rest of the season, and because he’s only under contract for one more year, won’t require much more than a low-level prospect that isn’t a valued part of the team’s future in return.
Moreover, seeing as he’ll hit the open market next season, the Phillies most likely wouldn’t have the typical concerns that typically come with intra-division trading.
Most importantly, Neshek has sat down opposing batters like there’s no tomorrow this season, pitching to a 1.24 ERA over 36 innings.
By acquiring him, the Nationals would truly, finally fix their bullpen, taking it from good to great once Glover returns.
Yes, acquiring a rental essentially means giving up a prospect for very little, and it also means the Nats will have some holes to fill entering the offseason.
But if Neshek comes in wherever the Nationals need him to be in Game 5 of this year’s NLDS and sits down the opposing side, most Nationals fans will probably forgive Mike Rizzo for the move.
Moreover, the Nationals aren’t new to having holes in the offseason — plus, this time, they may have learned their lesson regarding not fixing a clearly broken area in the offseason.
The Nats can also choose not to fill this clear hole. But, to be excruciatingly clear: A guy like Neshek could very well be the difference between a division championship and a World Series championship.
Apparently, the Phillies have had a standing offer for Neshek for the last month. It’s unclear who extended the offer (although it wouldn’t be surprising if it was the Nationals).
If the offer belongs to the Nats, they would be wise to call up Philadelphia as soon as they can to ask them how they can get the deal done, now.
If the offer doesn’t belong to the Nats, they would be wise to call up Philadelphia to ask them how they can blow the other team out of the water, now.
Either way, it seems imperative that the Nationals finish their bullpen reconstruction project with one more trade — and if they’re willing to spend in one way or another, there are other candidates for the job not named Pat Neshek, but he simply seems to make the most sense at this point.
Or, the team can do nothing, and risk it with the guys they have. But after seeing what a half season of the Nationals’ Opening Day bullpen looks like, can Mike Rizzo and Dusty Baker truly go into October in good conscience believing that their current bullpen is enough to push them over the hump?