Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office knew that the bullpen might be an issue going into the 2017 campaign, but after trying to find a closer via free agency or trade, they turned to their in-house options in Spring Training.
When things didn’t go well for the relievers given an opportunity to claim the Nats’ ninth inning role, Rizzo set about finding solutions for what was pretty quickly an obvious issue for an otherwise impressive team.
He acquired hard-throwing left-hander Sean Doolittle and righty Ryan Madson in a trade with the Oakland A’s, then added the sinker-balling righty Brandon Kintzler in a deal with the Minnesota Twins.
“This team grinded out so much and worked so extremely hard through a lot of trials and tribulations, and I felt that I owed the team to rectify a weakness on our roster,” Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN’s Sports Junkies after the non-waiver trade deadline last summer.
“We went out — our staff scoured the major leagues,” Rizzo explained.
“We logged a lot of scouting hours looking at [relievers] — we focused in on about eleven bullpen guys throughout the league and we sat on them and watched them. We knew every move that they made and put these things together and tried to get ourselves who are the best one or two and it turned out to be three guys it turned out to be that we could get.”
Doolittle, 31, is under team control through 2018 with club options for 2019 (at $6M) and 2020 (at $6.5M).
Madson, 37, had one year (at $7.5M) left on the 3-year/$22M deal he and the A’s signed in 2015.
Kintzler, 33, was the only one of the three relievers headed for the free agent market, but after testing the market, he returned to the nation’s capital on a 2-year/$10M deal.
With the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings covered, Rizzo told reporters this winter that he was happy with the back end of the bullpen and the mix of relievers on the roster for the remaining roles.
“We feel good about it,” he explained. “We like the back three, and the front five, so we’ve got a lot of different looks in the bullpen. We’ve got a lot of hard throwers, we’ve got a lot of guys who can strike people out.
“We’ve got guys who have a year more experience under their belts, and we feel good about it.”
Rizzo reiterated that stance earlier this week when he spoke to ESPN’s Buster Olney about the Nationals’ bullpen after watching a few weeks of Grapefruit League games and seeing how everyone looked early in Spring Training.
“We like the pen,” Rizzo said. “We made a point to make a trade last year with two quality relievers that we had control over for more than just the three months of the 2017 season, that was important to us. We went out and got a Kintzler, who was a solid performer for us and for Minnesota last year, and a guy that we love in the clubhouse, and some of our young kids in the system have stepped up to give us some real, real depth in the bullpen.
“We like our bullpen. It’s something that we confident about going into the ‘18 season and we’re confident that this is a group that can finish off games for us when our starters give us a quality start like they often do.”
Nationals’ manager Dave Martinez told reporters this week that he’s comfortable enough with the relievers who make up the three-headed monster at the back end of the bullpen, all of whom have experience closing, that he expects that each will get opportunities to close out games as he tries to keep everyone healthy over the course of the season.
“The one thing for sure is we’re going to take care of those guys,” Martinez said, as quoted by MLB.com’s Jamal Collier.
“We’re not going to burn them out. It’s a long season, so all three of them know that, on any given day, they might be asked to close out a game.”
Will the new manager, who’ve we’ve been told is a progressive thinker, match up more in the late innings than previous Nats’ managers? Is it just an availability thing, wherein if a reliever needs a night off one of the others will fill a different role?
And which pitchers will fill out the rest of the Opening Day bullpen? Martinez has two-plus weeks to make those decisions, but as things stand now, the Nationals are much better off than they were a year ago at this point.