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What did we learn about the Washington Nationals’ bullpen during the streak?

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For the first time in a long time, the Washington Nationals won three games in a row. This past week may have sorted out some issues, both positive and negative, in the bullpen.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Milwaukee Brewers Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since the trade deadline that changed everything, the Washington Nationals went on a winning streak. While it was nice to see the boys notch three straight Curly Dubs, we’re going to look today at what this strong week has shown us about the Nats’ revamped bullpen. Let’s start with the positives.

Bullpen Hierarchy

Those of you who remember me from when I wrote at Federal Baseball in the past will know that I’m generally not a big fan of the old (Capital C!) Closer model. I’m a believer in letting the best reliever handle your highest leverage spots rather than saving the relief ace to pitch with a three-run lead in the ninth inning. There are some times when the more conventional bullpen usage that we see in the major leagues makes more sense, though. This may well be one of those times. Let’s look at a couple of reasons.

  1. Sometimes creating a little structure can be more important than prioritizing a big spot in the 6th or 7th inning. This can be particularly true when the bullpen is loaded with more inexperienced players.
  2. When a team is rebuilding, it sometimes makes sense to try to artificially inflate the value of some players who may not make sense as long-term fits. One way to do this is to be rigid with their roles and give them opportunities in those high leverage spots.

While the current Nationals’ bullpen isn’t composed of players who are extremely young, just one member of the bullpen (Mason Thompson, 23) is younger than 26 years old. However, only two pitchers in the Nationals’ bullpen began the year with more than two full years of big league service time. Let’s have a look at the experience that the Nationals’ bullpen had coming into the year. We’ll include some of the options who are in the minors that could see time this year.

  • Javy Guerra (5.145)
  • Wander Suero (2.123)
  • Ryne Harper (2.020)
  • Tanner Rainey (1.158)
  • Austin Voth (1.127)
  • Jefry Rodríguez (1.089)
  • Kyle Finnegan (1.000)
  • Kyle McGowin (0.141)
  • Andres Machado (0.032)
  • Patrick Murphy (0.028)
  • Mason Thompson (0.000)
  • Gabe Klobosits (0.000)
  • Sam Clay (0.000)

There may be some options that weren’t listed above. We’ll get to them later. For now, let’s stick with guys who are already on the 40-Man roster and currently pitching out of the bullpen. Based on the list above, the ideal situation (knowing as we do now that Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson were traded away) would have been for Suero and Rainey to avoid the disappointing 2021 campaigns they’ve had and handle the highest leverage innings. They were two of the four most experienced arms in the bullpen, and both have shown flashes of brilliance in the past.

Unfortunately, both Rainey and Suero have pitched so poorly that they were optioned to the minors. Rainey is currently shut down due to pain in his side. Suero gave up 7 runs in 2 innings over his last 2 outings for Rochester. He hasn’t pitched since last Friday in what seems to be a mental health break. Until there are some positive progress reports there, it’s reasonable to assume that we won’t see either of them until 2022.

The Good

Kyle Finnegan has stepped into the closer’s role and handled it with aplomb. He’s converted 5 out of 6 save opportunities since taking the reins while maintaining a terrific 2.90 ERA and striking out 49 batters in 49.2 innings. Finnegan has essentially been the same pitcher that he was last season (2.89 ERA, 27 K in 24.2 IP) as a rookie. His walk rate can be a bit of a problem at times, but he’s a fine (and cheap!) 29-year-old reliever who has surpassed expectations a bit.

Finnegan fits the profile of the ideal guy that a rebuilding team should stick with rigidly as the closer. If he succeeds in that role for a couple of years, he’ll have far more value as a trade chip than the Nats ever would have expected. For the time being, he handles a couple of other duties:

  1. He keeps the front office from having to overpay for a closer in the free agent market
  2. He allows some of the younger relievers to get comfortable at the big league level before being forced into leverage roles

Another guy who has emerged is 28-year-old rookie Andres Machado. I wrote a bit about Machado last week when we looked at some of the cost-controlled relievers on the Nats. Since that article was published, Machado has emerged as the primary setup man, pitching in all three of the Nats’ wins this past week and notching Holds in two of them. We’ll have a bit more on Machado when we look at the negatives that this win streak exposed in the bullpen.

As one of the more experienced relievers in the bullpen, Ryne Harper has worked himself into the setup equation as well. He did struggle in Wednesday’s game, but he’s still got a team best 1.85 ERA. For some reason, though, Davey Martinez has been reluctant to use him in a setup role. He has just 2 Holds on the season. It’s possible that Davey doesn’t trust that the curveball heavy (78.3%) approach will hold up if teams are preparing for him in the late innings. There’s not really any other way to explain it.

The other reliever that Martinez has been trying to fit into a setup role is Mason Thompson. Thompson’s pure stuff fits the profile, but it seems like they might be asking too much of him this early on. Thompson has dealt with command and control issues throughout his minor league career and he hasn’t shown enough confidence in his slider to go along with the heavy sinking fastball he features.

Thompson has thrown his fastball 96.5% of the time this season. If he’s in a few lower pressure situations, maybe it will give him an opportunity to work the slider in more often. At 23, he’s the youngest guy in the bullpen. He also probably has the most upside. Let him get comfortable in lower leverage situations.

The (Kind of) Bad

Gabe Klobosits seems to be the middle reliever that Davey wants to give the most looks. He certainly hasn’t earned his way into leverage spots thus far, though the former 36th round pick has held his own. It really looks like the thing that’s missing from Klobosits’ game is an out pitch. He’s never been a big strikeout pitcher in the minors, but he’s struck out just four batters in 10.1 innings since getting the call.

A contact rate like that is liable to catch up with him, particularly with some inexperienced and shaky defenders behind him. Saturday’s game was a prime example....

  • Klobosits came into a dicey situation with runners on the corners and one out.
  • He induced a grounder to the 3.5 hole from Christian Yelich which a properly shifted defense probably gets to. It got through for an RBI single.
  • Yelich stole second without a throw. That’s on Klobosits, and has been an issue with a few pitchers in this series.
  • One of the more unacceptable plays of the year followed. Omar Narváez hit a pop-up about 15 feet down the first base line in foul territory. Klobosits, Ryan Zimmerman, and Tres Barrera all went after the ball. Nobody covered home. I’m trying to describe it, but there are no words for how terrible that play was.
  • Eduardo Escobar followed with a grounder up the middle (into the shift) that would have ended the inning, but it clipped Klobosits’ back foot on the way through and scored Yelich from second.

That’s three batted balls. It would have been reasonable for all three plays to have been made, with the only damage being an RBI groundout by Yelich. Instead, the inability to execute defensively led to three runs for the Brewers. Guess what helps prevent poor defensive execution from hurting you: The occasional strikeout!

The Ugly

I said above that we would talk about Andres Machado a bit more later. We’re not really going to talk about Machado’s performance so much as Davey Martinez’s (over)use of him. The Nats were off on Monday (8/16) and Thursday (8/19) this week. Machado has pitched in every game the Nats have played since last Sunday.

  • 8/15 - 1.0 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 1 K
  • 8/17 - 2.0 IP, 2 H, 0 BB, 1 K
  • 8/18 - 0.2 IP, 0 H, 2 BB, 2 K
  • 8/20 - 1.0 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 0 K
  • 8/21 - 0.2 IP, 0 H, 1 BB, 0 K

If there’s truly a problem with a winning streak, it’s that the manager can often rely a little too much on that “A” bullpen. Martinez seems to have decided that Machado is his best leverage option outside of his closer. Davey may well blow his arm out. Machado’s control was all over the place in Saturday’s game, which could be related to him being overused. He did manage to work his way out of trouble, at least.

This is an even larger problem when we consider the usage of two other relievers in the bullpen, each of whom came in to pitch during the eighth inning of Saturday’s 9-6 loss in Milwaukee. Neither Javy Guerra nor Jefry Rodríguez had pitched since last Saturday (8/14). While Davey Martinez was running Machado’s right arm into the ground, he was only using 71% of the relievers available to him in the bullpen.

We can understand a little bit if he’s shying away from using Rodríguez. Rodríguez is, after all, on the roster to be the long man in the bullpen, most likely working in mop-up duty. As the 27-year-old’s 5.27 career ERA suggests, this is probably the only role he’s ever going to be suited for in a major league bullpen. A manager can be excused for trying to hold his mop-up man in reserve a bit more during a brief winning streak. You never know when the next day’s starter is going to blow up, so it’s reasonable not to burn him.

The Javy Guerra problem is something else entirely. Guerra has been a slightly above average middle reliever over the course of his eleven-year career. He came to the Nats in 2019 and was a solid contributor out of the bullpen on the team that won the World Series. Guerra followed that up with 15+ decent innings during the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. Guerra spent most of the 2021 season in Rochester, but got a chance to join the big league roster after the deadline.

As solid a career as the 35-year-old Guerra has had, he’s been absolutely miserable since coming up. Saturday marked his sixth appearance in the majors this season. He’s allowed at least one run in five of them. He’s allowed at least three runs in half of those appearances. Martinez’s reluctance to use him for a whole week may have been partially responsible for Guerra’s poor outing on Saturday; It’s hard to stay sharp when you haven’t pitched in a week. Still, if a reliever’s manager doesn’t trust him enough to use him for a week-long stretch, he probably shouldn’t be on the roster. There were plenty of chances to go to Guerra. Martinez just picked Machado over him every time.

Replacements?

With an early road game on Sunday, it might be a bit of a surprise if they make a roster move before the series finale in Milwaukee. They have yet another off day on Monday before their series in Miami, though. It would be stunning (malpractice!) if Guerra is still on the roster on Tuesday. It might be a bit disappointing if Jefry Rodríguez is still with the club, too. We’ve seen enough in Jefry (With One F!) Rodríguez’s two stints with the Nats to know he isn’t a long term fit, though I’d miss having the Pixies in my head every time he pitched.

Replacing Guerra should be simple enough. The Nats do have a handful of options who are already on the 40 man roster. If they were to decide to go another route and call someone up who isn’t already on the 40 man roster, they could simply move Joe Ross from the 10-day IL to the 60-day IL, which would open up a spot. Both Guerra and Rodríguez have spent time in the minors this year, so even though they’re out of options, they could still be sent to Rochester.

Let’s start with the possibilities that are already on the 40-man roster.

  • Kyle McGowin - McGowin is still on a rehab assignment in Rochester, though he’s been pitching for a couple of weeks now. He’s looked great in his six appearances since coming back: 5.2 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 0 R, 6 K
  • Patrick Murphy - The Nats plucked Murphy off of waivers from Toronto a little over a week ago. He’s a 26-year-old righty who is pretty much a fastball/curveball guy. The Jays gave up on him starting last season. He looked strong out of the bullpen in AAA before throwing 9.1 pretty average innings out of the big league bullpen. There’s probably more upside here than with anyone else they’d consider calling up.
  • Austin Voth - Voth has made two rehab appearances down in Rochester as he returns from the COVID IL. He would seem to be an obvious option to take over one of the spots if he’s ready: 3.0 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 0 R, 4 K
  • Sam Clay - There may be a revolt if Clay gets the call. To be fair, the Nats don’t have any lefties in the bullpen. Clay has pitched in three games since being optioned to Rochester. Here’s an odd line: 3.0 IP, 0 H, 1 BB, 1 R, 5 K
  • Seth Romero - There’s no chance that they do this. The Nats’ 2017 first round pick has been back since July and is continuing to stretch out as a starter in AA. He’s been a bit inconsistent, and I still think the bullpen could be his long-term home.
  • Gerardo Carrillo - Another piece the Nats got back in the deadline deal with the Dodgers. Carrillo was starting in the Dodgers’ farm system and has done so with the Nats so far as well. He’s still just 22 in AA. There’s plenty of time to let him develop. He’s not really an option.

McGowin and Voth (if he’s ready) would pretty clearly be the first two options the Nats would consider turning to. I have to admit that I’m really intrigued by Patrick Murphy. He showed decent control and posted solid strikeout rates as a starter in his minor league career, though he seemed to have trouble staying healthy. Maybe it’s best to let him continue to get used to pitching out of the bullpen in Rochester before giving him a longer look next year.

Let’s get a little crazy

There are a couple of guys that we’ve seen in DC before who are no longer on the 40-man but have had nice seasons in AAA.

  • Dakota Bacus - Bacus really struggled last year when given the chance on the COVID-depleted 2020 roster. He had a 7:9 strikeout to walk ratio in 11.1 innings (yes... more walks than strikeouts) with the big league club while struggling to a 7.94 ERA and 2.03 WHIP. He’s had a strong year in AAA, though: 40.1 IP, 2.90 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 37:13 K:BB ratio
  • Aaron Barrett - Who doesn’t love the Bear, right? The comeback hasn’t gone so great in the majors the past few years, but he’s still a beloved figure for the franchise. Now 33, Barrett came back from knee surgery in June. He has had to work his way up through the system as he’s rehabbed, but between A, AA, and AAA, here’s what he’s done: 25.1, 1.42 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 37:5 K:BB ratio

My best guess is that the Nats will call up McGowin to replace Guerra before Tuesday’s game in Miami. I think they’re probably going to stick with Jefry Rodríguez and Klobosits for the time being. The rosters do expand from 26 to 28 active players in 10 more days. What would everyone in the comments like to see?