This is not how things were supposed to happen.
It’s bad enough that the Washington Nationals are 10-13 — losers of four of their last five and eight of their last 12. A.J. Cole had such a rough start he had to be designated for assignment and was subsequently traded, both Adam Eaton and Anthony Rendon are on the disabled list and the bullpen owns the worst ERA in the National League at a startling 5.66.
Factor in impressive starts from three of four division rivals and you have the makings of a worst-case scenario no one within the organization could’ve been expecting. Things aren’t going to be getting any easier either, as 19 of the Nats’ next 22 games have them slated against opponents who sport winning records.
”Just keep your head up and keep going, that’s the only way you can do it,” starter Gio Gonzalez told MLB.com after Monday night’s loss. “Can’t dwell in the past, can’t dwell on little things. You just got to keep going.”
Jeremy Hellickson has been impressive in his two spot starts thus far, filling the hole left by Cole. The offense is struggling without Eaton, Rendon and Daniel Murphy, but all three are expected to be back on the field in the next few weeks. As for the relief corps, however, the front office faces the same dilemma it did last year: address bullpen needs now or wait to find a good deal ahead of the trade deadline.
The bullpen carousel has yet to stop turning. Enny Romero was put on waivers and picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Shawn Kelley and Matt Grace are sitting on the disabled list and neither Koda Glover nor Joaquin Benoit have made their way into the news with progressions from their respective injuries. Austin Adams and Carlos Torres are the newest names to make their ways onto the MLB roster — neither of which boast impressive resumes.
It’s only April, so it’s certainly not yet time to panic. However, the biggest difference between 2017 and 2018 is the division Washington is playing in. The Nats had the luxury of a large lead in the NL East last season. No other division rival was able to climb within five games of Washington after May 9 and the Nationals finished the season 20 games ahead of the second-place Miami Marlins.
This year’s campaign already looks like a completely different story. The Nationals sit fourth in the NL East behind three teams that sport run differentials of +16 or higher. They’re just 5-7 against division foes and have yet to face the Philadelphia Phillies, who’ve won 13 of their last 16 and own the second-best team ERA in the NL (3.01).
Luckily for the Nats, their biggest problems haven’t been with their late-inning arms. Sean Doolittle is 4-for-4 in save opportunities. Brandon Kintzler and Ryan Madson may have unsightly ERAs, but Kintzler has tossed seven straight scoreless appearances and Madson had given up just two earned runs in his first 10 games before the New York Mets roughed him up for six earned last week.
The problem, instead, lies with the fifth and sixth innings. When the Nats’ starters run into late trouble or run up their pitch counts in the early going, the bullpen has blown several leads and allowed multiple deficits to expand further. Sammy Solis and Trevor Gott have both been inconsistent, and the presences of Adams and Torres aren’t going to fix things anytime soon.
While fans may clamor for the team to acquire someone like Alex Colome or Raisel Iglesias, the Nationals would be wiss to wait until closer to the deadline before dealing out top prospects to bring those big names in. That way, the front office can account for injuries and allow its bullpen’s sample size of innings pitched to grow before pushing payroll any farther past the luxury-tax threshold.
As for cheaper, low-leverage relievers, the Nats don’t have to wait in order to add them to the roster. Names like Jared Hughes, Craig Stammen and Luis Avilan may not jump off the page like front-line closers, but all three have proven reliable in the middle innings over the past few years. Adding any of them to the roster doesn’t shake up the back end of the bullpen and creates valuable depth for a relief corps that’s already stretched thin.
The Nats don’t need to panic just yet. But in a year when both Bryce Harper and Murphy are gearing up for free agency and the rest of the NL East is steadily improving, the front office can’t play things conservatively. The bullpen is a problem that needs fixing, Washington just has to dip into the market and grab some tools.
”When [the starters] go out there and give us a chance to win, we want to close those games out,” center fielder Michael Taylor told MLB.com. “There’s not much we can do about it now, but we’ll continue to keep grinding.”