Every year, the Washington Nationals set a trap for themselves.
It’s always vaguely present at the beginning of a year—”World Series or Bust,” a lineup that seems stronger than it is or a choking (twice-over) closer—but lulled to sleep by Florida afternoons, it goes forgotten throughout Spring Training, because Surely, This is The Year!
And when the problem makes itself apparent for the first time—a blown save, a mediocre run of games, a general lack of urgency—the team ignores it, playing the same way as it always does, running around with its hair on fire, except not in that Rizzo-ian way, refusing to reach for the extinguisher.
This year, the clubhouse and its attitude won’t be a problem until fists fly in the dugout. Instead, the problem is apparent from a glance at the depth chart, meaning Mike Rizzo will likely have to make a deadline move to close the wound that will likely open in the bullpen as troubles may cascade downwards if just a few players can’t bounce back or stay healthy.
“The bullpen? Surely not! It has Sean Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, and Tony Sipp!
Why, Fangraphs ranked it as 9th-best in the Majors just the other day!” one might say. But below that facade of dazzling arms lies a serious weakness.
First, it’s important to note that the Nats should expect to use their bullpen quite a bit.
Jeremy Hellickson, who rarely made it past the fifth inning last season, and Anibal Sánchez, who only had 12 quality starts (6.0 IP+, 3 or fewer earned runs) in 25 games in 2018, will start back-to-back in the rotation, meaning relievers will likely see two straight days of heavy workloads at a minimum.
Additionally, the NL East presents far more intimidating hitters than it did two years or even a year ago for the Nationals. Davey Martinez should expect for his relievers to see Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins twice a game with the Phillies, Robinson Cano and Brandon Nimmo twice with the Mets, Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña Jr. twice with the Braves, and even Brian Anderson twice with the Marlins.
In other words, the Nationals’ bullpen needs to be better than it’s been in years — and it likely won’t be.
The potential trouble starts at the top, with the team’s de-facto closer, Sean Doolittle.
Fangraphs projects Doolittle to be the most valuable reliever in the Nationals’ pen, with 1.3 fWAR, per its Depth Charts projections that combine Steamer and ZiPS projections with Fangraphs staff allocating playing time.
When Doolittle is healthy, he’s lethal, with a career 2.83 ERA and 2.40 FIP — last year, he pitched to a 1.60 ERA with a 1.89 FIP. He gets about a third of batters to ground out (32.3% last season), striking out 12 batters per nine innings. But the lurking issue lies in his health and velocity.
Doolittle throws his fastball almost exclusively: Since 2017, he’s thrown his fastball 88% of the time, per Brooks Baseball, averaging a velocity around 95 MPH. All spring long, Doolittle’s velocity has hovered in the low 90s, which Fangraphs somewhat attributes to a toe injury that sidelined him for nearly all of last year, though it could be a function of age as well — or not a problem at all. (For what it’s worth, Fangraphs’ Depth Charts projections have Doolittle pitching to a 3.36 ERA this season, with a 3.41 FIP — good, but nowhere near dominant.)
But the injury that may have led Doolittle to his velocity drop is far more concerning and emblematic of what may go wrong.
Since 2015, Doolittle hasn’t survived a season without spending a stint on the injured list. In 2015, 2016 and 2017, his shoulder sidelined him — but last year, his left big toe was the source of the problem. This history of injury and potential for regression exerts extra pressure on the next men up.
Trevor Rosenthal, the next man up both proverbially and for the closer’s role in the event of injury, also has a sparkling upside: in 2017, he pitched to a 3.40 ERA and a 2.17 FIP. In 2015, he saved 48 games, and in 2013, he struck out 12.90 batters per 9 innings.
But like Doolittle, Rosenthal also has a troubled injury history: since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2017, he hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors.
His velocity, which the scoreboard in West Palm has recorded at triple digits on multiple occasions, doesn’t seem like a problem. His location, though, seems like it could present an issue: over 9.0 innings pitched this spring, Rosenthal has walked 8 and hit 1, allowing 4 runs and 7 hits while striking out 7.
Again, it’s difficult to assign real value to Spring Training stats, but Rosenthal has struggled with location before. In 2016—the worst season he had in a Cardinals uniform—he walked 6.47 per 9 innings with a 1.93 K/BB ratio—pitching to a career worst 3.72 ERA and 3.74 FIP, numbers so close they suggest his struggles were nowhere near a statistical anomaly.
Again, spring numbers are difficult to project over a full year, but Rosenthal’s location struggles may well continue, especially after Tommy John.
If both Doolittle and Rosenthal falter, the best arms in the bullpen suddenly become offseason addition Kyle Barraclough and late-spring addition Tony Sipp.
Barraclough, who the Nats have seen regularly with the Miami Marlins, presents yet another case of a player with stellar abilities, once giving up no runs and one hit over 12 straight outings. In 2017, he pitched to a 3.00 ERA and a 3.66 FIP, and in 2016, he posted a 2.85 ERA and 2.11 FIP.
But in the second half of 2018, Barraclough fell apart. His fastball lost velocity, his off-speed became more hittable, and his second-half FIP hit 9.24 as opponents clubbed him for a .361 average. For nearly every man he struck out, he walked another, with a 1.18 K/BB ratio.
The Nats expect far more proportionally from Barraclough than they invested into him, as they picked him up for international cap space but expect him to anchor their seventh inning against righties. And in 9.2 innings this spring, he showed few signs of bouncing back, allowing 9 hits, including 3 homers, over 9.2 innings pitched, with opponents hitting .257 off him. Fangraph’s Depth Charts projections think he’ll pitch to a 4.07 ERA and 4.14 FIP next year — which is to say he won’t exactly dominate.
But Barraclough will still likely run through the bullpen gate on Opening Day if Max Scherzer isn’t still on the hill, with Sipp coming in for lefties. Sipp himself presents an odd case: though he pitched to a 1.86 ERA and 2.41 FIP last year after finding the “conviction” behind his fastball and leaving 83.3% of runners on base, Sipp has been one of baseball’s least-consistent pitchers since 2015—when he pitched to a 1.99 ERA and a 2.93 FIP (likely due to his .204 BABIP that season). In 2016, his FIP ballooned to 6.19, remaining high in 2017 at 5.22 before coming back down last season.
It seems hard to believe that Sipp’s fastball speed—which has fluctuated from 91.3 MPH to 92.2 MPH over the last four seasons—entirely dictates the strength of his arsenal, though he did seem to gain about 1 MPH on all his pitches last season.
If Sipp pitches as well as he did last year or as poorly as he did in 2017, it’ll almost certainly garner more analysis, but he seems unable to find any sort of middle ground. (Fangraphs projects a 3.81 ERA this year, for what it’s worth.)
Before the seventh inning, the Nationals have Matt Grace (who posted a 2.87 ERA last year but struggles with consistency), Justin Miller (who dominated for the beginning of his tenure last year before putting up a wholly mediocre performance for the rest of the year), and Wander Suero (a surprisingly good addition last year with a 3.59 ERA but a projected 4.25 ERA and FIP this year).
In other words: the Nats have one reliever they can really trust, if he stays healthy and doesn’t regress — and two, if Spring Training isn’t a predictor of the regular season and Tommy John surgery didn’t alter him as a pitcher. Beyond that, nearly everyone in the bullpen is an unknown and has the potential for implosion.
It’s possible—likely, in fact—that not everyone will regress and struggle simultaneously as they did in 2017. But it’s quite feasible that more than a few relievers will struggle and leave the Nats without consistency in a few places, whether if it’s in the middle innings or late in games. If either Doolittle or Rosenthal begins struggling or gets injured, this team’s weaknesses elsewhere will become apparent quickly as the team struggles to make it through the middle innings after Hellickson and Sánchez both exit early.
The Nats could head this problem off by signing, say, Craig Kimbrel to shore up the late innings and serve as insurance if either Doolittle or Rosenthal (or even both) run into trouble. They can also wait until the deadline to plug their holes — or the problem can consume the team as it did in 2017.
The key difference: in 2017, the Nats pounced on the rest of the division’s comparative weakness, often walking off games against lowly NL East rivals even after the bullpen blew a lead. They’ll have far fewer opportunities to do so this year — meaning a bad bullpen or even a mediocre one could sink any hopes of reaching the playoffs.
And even if the absolute best-case scenario occurs, in which Doolittle stays healthy and his fastball remains fast, Rosenthal finds his control and Barraclough and Sipp are able to pitch as the better versions of themselves, the Nats have quite a few variables to contend with and are far from the lockdown bullpen they need to make a deep October run.