To say that the Washington Nationals bullpen is “beat up” would be underselling the situation.
Coming into a stretch of 14 games against teams in playoff spots, the Nats were still fresh off losing two of their better relievers to the Injured List as Daniel Hudson and Kyle Finnegan landed there with right elbow inflammation and a left hamstring strain, respectively.
Then on Tuesday, the team announced that Tanner Rainey was placed on the 10-day IL with a stress reaction in his right tibia, knocking them down another high-leverage arm at the end of games.
And perhaps an underrated blow to the bullpen is that with injuries to Stephen Strasburg and Erick Fedde in the rotation, the Nationals were forced to shift the surprisingly effective Paolo Espino from the bullpen to the rotation this week.
Lacking effective relievers to bridge the gap from a hot-and-cold rotation to closer Brad Hand, Nationals manager Dave Martinez has his work cut out for him managing a depleted bullpen.
“It’s just looking at matchups,” Martinez told reporters ahead of Tuesday’s game when asked about how he’s planning to piece together the late innings with all of the injuries in the ‘pen.
“[Pitching Coach Jim] Hickey and I have conversations before the games about how — if things go another way this is what we’re going to do. If things go another way this is what we’re going to do, and a lot of this stuff is based on matchups.
“And then it’s also based on how guys are feeling, and how they’re throwing the ball too.“
Reinforcements aren’t on the way anytime soon. The only pitcher on the IL to throw a bullpen since landing there is Stephen Strasburg, though the Nats’ skipper mentioned that Hudson could get to the point of throwing one before today’s game.
For now, the Nationals have no choice to go with a next-man-up mentality at the end of games.
“A lot of these other guys are going to have to get bumped up and pitch in high-leverage situations and we’ll see what they can do,” Martinez explained.
“But I really believe they can do it with the stuff they’ve got. They can go out there and fill the void for right now.”
However, with the Nationals at the start of a stretch of games before the All-Star Break that could give a huge indication as to whether this team can contend or not in 2021, that may not be enough to cut it.
The most reliable bullpen arms to set up a close game for Hand are currently Austin Voth and Sam Clay. It’s a role they can be deputized in, but their home is in the middle innings.
With a walking-wounded relief corps, it’s fair to wonder whether it might be a good time for the Nationals to try and jump into the trade market to snag their bullpen a more natural and experienced late-inning, high-leverage pitcher.
It’s not unprecedented for the Nats to get aggressive and break the seal early on a trade. In 2018, GM Mike Rizzo pulled the trigger on a deal to acquire Kelvin Herrera from the Kansas City Royals on June 18th with his team at 38-32 and tied for the second Wild Card spot.
That trade also mirrors the current situation for the Nationals a little because that trade came in reaction to Brandon Kintzler, the team’s primary seventh-inning guy, being placed on the IL just eight days earlier with a right forearm flexor strain, stretching the bullpen.
Even though they sit just one game above .500 at 39-38 after Tuesday night’s win over the Tampa Bay Rays, the Nationals have ridden a Kyle Schwarber-powered, 13-3 wave in their last 16 games. They are starting to look like potential contenders for a postseason spot.
If the Nationals were able to hang around through this stretch regardless, they would certainly be looking to acquire relief help at the deadline anyway.
Why not pull the trigger a little early to give themselves the best chance at sticking around?
There are enough teams in the league who would already consider themselves out of the race, just as the Royals did in 2018, that they would consider trading away pieces right now.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are 29-49, are frequent trade partners with the Nationals, and have the likes of Richard Rodríguez and Kyle Crick who could slot right into a high-leverage role.
Or perhaps one of the several journeyman starter-turned-reliever pitchers who are lurking on losing teams could be a nice, quick get for the Nationals. Ian Kennedy on the 31-48 Texas Rangers and Kendall Graveman on the 41-39, but still rebuilding Seattle Mariners fit that mold.
And then there some other intriguing, low-cost cases like Daniel Bard, who has had an incredible revival with the Colorado Rockies, or Yimi García who has been lights-out as the closer for the Miami Marlins — a team that even traded away Corey Dickerson on Tuesday.
It doesn’t have to be an all-in move where they push in some of their most valuable prospect chips. If Washington gets to the break unscathed and wants to buy heading towards the trade deadline, they could make a bigger impact move at the end of July.
Right now though, they have a bullpen that needs fresh bodies who can pitch late in games.
They could certainly do with at least one for this crucial 14-game sprint to the All-Star Break...