The 2018-19 offseason is an important one for the Washington Nationals, and they’ve wasted no time making moves to fortify one of their most important areas: the bullpen.
By acquiring former Miami Marlins closer Kyle Barraclough just 10 days after the regular-season finale and signing ex-St. Louis Cardinals ninth-inning man Trevor Rosenthal to an incentive-laden deal, Washington solidified a portion of a key part of its roster.
“At that time of year, you’re looking for some type of values,” Rizzo said an interview with 106.7 the FAN. “We didn’t mark our calendars and say we’re going to have two potential answers in the back of our bullpen by Thanksgiving, but it worked out that way.
The Nats ranked 15th in ERA (4.05) and 20th in strikeouts per nine innings (8.5) among MLB bullpens last season, marking the second-straight year Washington finished outside the top-10 in both categories.
The bullpen particularly struggled in the final two months, when pitchers such as Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, Shawn Kelley and Kelvin Herrera were all either traded, released or injured — and the team’s younger arms made a large chunk of the team’s relief appearances. Only the Philadelphia Phillies had a worse bullpen ERA among NL teams over that span.
Clearly displeased with the depth of his bullpen, general manager Mike Rizzo aggressively pursued Barraclough and Rosenthal. However, his work shouldn’t be done just yet. Outside closer Sean Doolittle, the Nationals have just two left-handed relievers on their 40-man roster: Matt Grace and Sammy Solis. Neither should be expected to hold down the lefty specialist role all season, giving Rizzo one last hole to fill.
Grace had the best season of his career in 2018, posting a 2.87 ERA in 56 appearances. He did, however, spend six weeks on the disabled list and had good-not-great splits against left-handed hitters. Solis is out of options and is an early candidate to be designated for assignment after finishing with a 6.41 ERA and 1.551 WHIP in 56 games.
The way the bullpen is currently constructed, Doolittle and Rosenthal figure to anchor the later innings with Barraclough, Grace, Solis, Justin Miller and Koda Glover filling out the rest of the team’s relief corps. Wander Suero, Trevor Gott and Jimmy Cordero are among the pitchers Washington could consider if it opens the season with an eight-man bullpen.
It’s important to note the front office will organize the bullpen to keep as many roster options available as possible. As a result, Solis has a better chance of making the team’s Opening Day roster than Suero or Glover because the latter two still have minor-league options.
The Nationals will likely give Solis one more chance to prove he’s a capable reliever before calling someone else up to replace him. Washington made a similar move just last season, giving A.J. Cole a shot at the No. 5 spot in the rotation before trading him to the New York Yankees and promoting Erick Fedde in his place once Cole struggled.
If the team were to acquire another left-hander, Glover could be pushed down to the minors to allow him to pitch consistently. Some notable southpaws available on the free-agent market are Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, Justin Wilson, Jerry Blevins and Tony Sipp. Depending on how much money the Nats have left over after making a decision on Bryce Harper and solidifying their rotation, they could be in play for any of them.
Miller has never been bothered by what role he’s used in, making him a unique tool for any manager in late-inning situations. If Britton doesn’t find the money he’s looking for on the market after two straight injury-plagued seasons, perhaps he could be coaxed into a one-year deal to rebuild his value.
Luckily, many teams are waiting on Harper and Manny Machado to sign their respective deals before plunging headfirst into the free-agent pool. The Nats should have an idea of how they stand financially before the top bullpen arms start flying off the market.
“We’re going to attack this offseason like we’ve attacked every other offseason,” Rizzo said. “We have a laundry list of things that we would like to upgrade, improve, tweak and that type of thing.”
Meanwhile, the team must decide on Joe Ross’ role on the team in 2019. After returning from Tommy John surgery in September to make three starts, Ross will almost certainly be restricted to an innings limit next season. If the Nats fill out their rotation with two more starters before winter’s end, Ross could be moved to the bullpen for the year.
Of course, Ross could always start the year in the minors and be called up in case of an injury to the Nats’ starting five. But if he performs well in AAA, Washington would be hard-pressed not to find a role for him on the major-league ballclub.
That isn’t to say the Nats won’t sign other high-upside arms to minor-league deals to add depth from the bottom up.
Washington signed former All-Star starter Henderson Alvarez for that very reason on Monday, and others are likely soon to follow — for both the rotation and bullpen.
Washington started off this offseason with its foot on the gas pedal, and there’s plenty of reason to believe it’s not done yet. The bullpen is one piece away from being a complete unit, and while the Nats can afford to wait for the market to develop, they would be making a huge mistake if they didn’t fortify the left-handed pitching depth.