Maybe one day, the Washington Nationals’ bullpen won’t be such a major talking point in baseball. Or if we’re lucky, it will be a talking point for the right reasons. Unfortunately, that day is not today and the team is left praying that things turn around soon.
The issues reared their ugly head again Wednesday. Austen Williams turned a 9-2 lead after eight innings into a three-run lead in the ninth, forcing Sean Doolittle into action.
“That happened really fast. You guys saw it, everybody saw it,” manager Dave Martinez said after the game. “The biggest thing is — to have to use Doolittle up seven there in the ninth was tough. But we had to close out the game.”
The lack of reliable arms outside of Doolittle continues to haunt this team in the early going, but it’s a situation that they have put themselves in by taking risks this winter.
In an offseason of many needs for the Nationals, General Manager Mike Rizzo rightly made the starting rotation his main priority. The signings of Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, and Jeremy Hellickson give the Nats one of the better rotations in the league.
The front office certainly deserves praise for this, turning one of their biggest weaknesses in 2018 into a huge strength. However, that meant Rizzo had to do some bargain hunting for other needs, including the bullpen.
Over the course of the winter, the front office brought in Trevor Rosenthal on an incentive-laden $7 million deal, Kyle Barraclough in a trade with the Miami Marlins, and Tony Sipp on a one-year, $1.25 million deal.
The results so far have been ugly. The bullpen currently boasts league-worst figures in ERA at 8.04, WHIP at 1.81, batting average against at .310, and save percentage after recording just one save in five opportunities.
This adversity leaves the manager in a rough situation. While Martinez has been far from perfect in his bullpen management so far as a manager, it doesn’t help that no matter which button he presses, it blows up in his face.
“You stay positive. I mean, it’s a long year, and they understand that,” Martinez said early last week. “You have conversations with them and the biggest thing for me is to just reiterate, ‘Just know who you are, and pitch to your strengths.’”
“You’ve got to have confidence in those guys, got to have confidence in all those guys,” Martinez also said. “Sometimes you start off slower than others, and you’ve just got to keep battling.”
Even if it is just a slow start, it’s become hard for fans, media, and management to watch. Every time the bullpen comes in, no matter how big the lead, dread sets in.
This has led to many demanding the team sign Craig Kimbrel to help resolve the team’s woes. There’s no doubt that the seven-time All-Star would be a huge upgrade in the bullpen, giving Martinez a second lights-out option late in games.
Unfortunately, ownership appears to have taken a firm stance on not going over the $206 million luxury tax threshold this season. Whether this is the right stance for billionaire owners is a completely different debate, but that’s where they stand right now.
With that in mind, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Nats have close to $9 million in breathing room under the threshold. However, this doesn’t take into account potential incentives, which will likely take the team close to the threshold.
That means the chances of the Nationals actually adding Kimbrel are almost nonexistent barring a stunning change in approach from ownership.
In a recent interview with the Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan, Rizzo didn’t sound too fazed by this restriction and the financial support he’s had from the Lerners.
“We’re at a payroll number that we’re comfortable with,” Rizzo said. “We’re at a collective bargaining tax number that we have to be cognizant of, but there’s certainly nothing in the construction of this roster that has to do with resources.”
“It may be resource allocation and that type of thing,” Rizzo added. “We’ve had all the resources that we need to field a successful and competitive team over the last seven years. Ownership has always been very, very good about that, and they continue to be.”
So while they walk the tightrope on that threshold, the front office doesn’t have much choice but to hope that the current crop of relievers can turn it around. At the very least, they have to hope that the team can tread water until further along in the season when they may be able to bring in low-AAV reinforcements.
If they try and trade for someone in April or May who will also fit under the tax threshold, they’re going to have to overpay massively prospect-wise. Potential selling teams know the Nationals are desperate and they're under no pressure to sell their best assets just yet.
“We’re going to have to figure this thing out. We’re going to have to figure out the bullpen,” Rizzo also said in his interview with the Junkies.
“My glass is half-full. I believe in the rotation and the pitchers and the bullpen. I may believe in the bullpen guys more than the bullpen guys do. I like their track records, I like the mix that we have in the bullpen.”
There has at least been a little progress on that front lately, even if it’s not quite enough to get them away from the basement in bullpen rankings.
“The bullpen is starting to pitch better. They really are,” Martinez said on Wednesday. “Williams had a tough day today, he did, but the rest of the guys are starting to throw better, so that’s encouraging.”
Wander Suero, who surrendered four runs in his first two outings, has now only allowed an earned run in one of his seven outings since. Barraclough boasts a 1.42 ERA, even if he has allowed all seven of the runners he’s inherited to score.
You also have pitchers in Matt Grace (8.10 ERA), Joe Ross (11.57 ERA), and Tony Sipp (13.50 ERA) who are all due to come back to earth and be more serviceable than they’ve shown in such a small sample so far.
But perhaps the key to this bullpen at least becoming average is Rosenthal. The former Cardinal finally recorded an out last week, and followed it up with a much more promising outing against the Giants on Tuesday where he seemed to finally have his control back.
“I feel like the more he gets out the more he relaxes,” Martinez said on Tuesday. “He didn’t yank as many pitches as he did before, which was kind of nice. He was throwing downhill, which is kind of nice, so it was definitely a positive day for Rosenthal.”
Rosenthal has been the butt of many jokes early on in 2019, but if he can finally shake the yips he’s had, he’s still got the upside of one of the best set-up man in baseball. That’s a huge caveat, evidenced by the horrendous start, but it's feasible.
The Nationals need to hope for improvement for now, because significant outside help isn’t coming anytime soon.
Maybe they could swap some of the fringe guys like Williams for warm bodies such as Austin Adams or Vidal Nuño to see if they click. But, on the whole, it’s going to be down to this crop of pitchers to produce.
We appear to be stuck with this group for the immediate future, for better or for worse. Let's just hope it's for the better...