A year after the Washington Nationals went into Spring Training searching for an in-house option to close out games, after failing to find a closer via free agency or trade last winter, the Nats’ bullpen picture is much clearer.
“Our bullpen is really solid,” GM Mike Rizzo told MLB Network Radio hosts Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette in a late January interview.
“We’ve got good medical reports on Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover,” he added, “which is going to really, really help our depth in our bullpen, and with [Sean] Doolittle, [Ryan] Madson, and [Brandon] Kintzler at the back end of those games we feel really good about that.”
Doolittle and Madson were, of course, acquired from the Oakland A’s in advance of the non-waiver deadline last July, and Rizzo added Kintzler in a pre-deadline deal with the Minnesota Twins, giving the Nationals options at the back end of the bullpen after a few months of issues and a couple of closer options failed to claim the role as their own.
Heading into this season, and barring injuries or issues this Spring, there aren’t too many spots to fill in Washington’s bullpen.
Doolittle, who put up a 2.40 ERA, a 2.76 FIP, eight walks, 31 Ks, and a .204/.254/.296 line against with 21 saves in 22 opportunities with the Nationals, is, Dave Martinez confirmed on Saturday, the closer in the nation’s capital, not there was any real doubt.
Martinez was asked what he knew about the hard-throwing left-hander when he spoke to reporters following the second workout of the Spring on Saturday.
“What do I know about Doolittle? He’s good,” Martinez said. “He’s got a closer mentality. He’s our closer. And right now he’s got a good fastball. He’s got a live arm, and he likes to throw it, and for me it’s letting those guys be who they are, and he knows how to get guys out, so I’m glad he feels really good right now, he’s conditioning really well, he’s doing everything really well, so everything is positive.”
Doolittle, who threw his fastball 87.7% of the time last season, mixing in a changeup (7.1%) and slider (5.2%), told reporters this weekend that he’s working on his secondary pitches, and plans to mix things up a little bit more.
“People think just because I throw a ton of fastballs, maybe I’m just stubborn,” Doolittle said, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman.
“But I try really hard to develop the secondary stuff, because it could make me so much more efficient.”
“I’m at a spot in my career where I have a chance to continue to develop,” the Nats’ closer added, “and that’s what Spring Training is all about.”
In other words, don’t be too concerned if he gets knocked around this Spring, because he is working on things.
While Doolittle enters the season as the closer, with Madson likely to handle the eighth and Kintzler, who tested free agency before returning on a 2-year/$10M deal, handling things in the seventh, Martinez said he’s willing to match up when necessary, so he will not be afraid to change things up.
“In a perfect world that would be great,” the skipper explained, when asked if he would stick to strict relief roles.
“Unfortunately we live in an imperfect world. Those guys will know their roles, and it will be through conversation.
“Certain situations, we’re better with Madson maybe throwing the seventh and Kintzler throwing the eighth, but it will be through conversation, or every series will be different, every team we play will be different.
“So I’ll definitely talk to those guys before we go into a series so they’ll know what their job is.”
Now-former Nationals’ skipper Dusty Baker talked often last season about monitoring the workload for both Doolittle and Madson, who’ve dealt with injury issues in the past, so he could make sure they weren’t overworked.
Martinez said he will, of course, watch both closely as well.
“We will definitely monitor that,” he explained.
“I don’t want any of those guys getting hurt, and like I said, it’s going to be all through conversation and monitoring their workload, seeing how many innings they’re pitching.
“They’ll go out there some days, if they throw 25 pitches, we’ll look at all that stuff, but as of right now, they’re telling me they’re rip-raring to go, their routines are unbelievable, I mean, they’re working their butts off, so it’s good to see.”
Shawn Kelley, who struggled with injuries last season after a strong 2016 in the first year of the 3-year/$15M deal he signed with the Nationals, could add right-handed depth to the bullpen if he can stay healthy this season, and Martinez said the signs are positive in the first few days of Spring Training.
“[Kelley] looked really good, and he’s healthy and he’s happy,” Martinez told reporters on Friday afternoon.
“He’s an awesome guy, his teammates love him, he’s a leader. My job is to keep him healthy the best way possible. And we’re going to try to do that and maximize when we can use him and when not to use him. Who knows, only time will tell, but he might be a guy right now that he pitches one game and he’s off one game just to make sure that he’s healthy moving forward.”