Prior to the trade deadline, an argument could’ve been made for almost every pitcher on the Washington Nationals’ 40-man roster to make the postseason squad had the season ended then. There just wasn’t a very large disparity between the best and worst relievers on the team, as nearly all of them were having a down year.
If nothing else, Shawn Kelley is the poster boy for the Nats’ bullpen struggles this year. Considered a candidate for the closer’s role heading into the season, Kelley has struggled to a 7.36 ERA, 1.519 WHIP and 8.4 K/9 while converting four saves and blowing two of them in 32 appearances.
Once Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler joined the team, the rest of the bullpen seemed to settle into its roles and the results have been much better. Since the All-Star Break, the Nats’ relief corps owns the best bullpen ERA in the National League (3.50).
“I think that the bullpen has really stabilized,” GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies back in August. “I think the additions have been welcomed by the entirety of the bullpen, and I think everyone is in a better slot right now in the bullpen and their roles are more defined and I think you’re seeing all the guys, including the new acquisitions, but all the players in the bullpen are thriving because of it.”
Matt Albers (1.74 ERA in 57 IP) has been reliable all season, but Joe Blanton (two earned runs over last 12 games) and Sammy Solis (seven straight scoreless appearances) have really turned things around over the last few weeks.
The same can’t be said for Kelley, who has actually seen his ERA increase since being activated from the disabled list Aug. 17. His biggest problem has been keeping the ball inside the park, allowing a team-high, among relievers, 12 home runs on the season.
Washington will likely carry an eight-man bullpen in the playoffs, needing only four starters in the rotation. Doolittle, Madson, Kintzler and Albers are locks to earn spots on the roster, and it’s very likely that Blanton, Solis and Oliver Perez (3.38 ERA, 1.125 WHIP in second half) make the team as well.
That leaves one final roster spot that could be filled by Kelley, Enny Romero, Edwin Jackson, A.J. Cole or Matt Grace. Romero hasn’t been used in many high-leverage situations since returning from injury and Grace is probably a long shot given his minimal experience, but both Jackson and Cole could be used as long relievers should a starter run into trouble early.
It’d be incredibly risky to go into the playoffs without a long reliever, and Kelley’s performance this season hasn’t been enough to justify doing it. With another year left on his three-year, $15 million deal he signed with the Nats ahead of last season, Kelley could rebound next year and regain the trust of his manager and fans. For now, however, the Nats would be much better suited starting the NLDS without him.