ISO a good reliever. Price not a consideration.
No, that’s not strong enough.
“Bullpen assistance desperately needed in Washington, pronto!”
That’s not quite the ticket either.
“Absolutely, positively got to have a proven relief pitcher, ASAP. Will overpay in trade. Contact Nats GM Mike Rizzo immediately. (Psssst, don’t tell Ted.)” Perfect. Sometimes you have to lose a trade to preserve a season. That’s where the Washington Nationals are now. Make the Nats an offer— because they probably can’t refuse.
Tyler Clippard, come home! D.C. pines for you. Steve McCatty will shine your goggles.
Jonathan Papelbon, Nats fans don’t really think you’re a jerk. Just get on 95 South out of Philly, then take 295 until you hit the South Capitol Street exit.
Aroldis Chapman ... okay, that’s probably just dreaming.
Joaquin Benoit, you’re not a San Diego closer anymore. You’re old, but you keep getting people out. You would be welcome. So would a half-dozen other relievers who are free agents after this season and probably soon will be on the market.
Over the next several weeks, can the Nats find the deal they need to strengthen their injured, inexperienced and probably inadequate bullpen?
Andif they find that trade partner — Billy Beane in Oakland or maybe the chucklehead in Philadelphia — will Rizzo, so accustomed to proper praise for stellar or at least helped-both-clubs trades, be able to swallow hard and say, “Yes,” when he know she’s
probably overpaying? Tough problem. Huge stakes.
The Nats, in a 4-11 slump after a 21-6 streak, have been smacked by one injury after another since the last week of May. Most of those problems presumably will pass if the team’s medical evaluations are accurate (stop snickering).
Doug Fister, Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman are all due back from the disabled list within a couple of weeks. Jayson Werth thinks he will return before Aug. 1. If the Nats get semi-healthy in the lame NL East, they should be in the playoffs.
But what will they do once they get there? Or even if they come down the September stretch in a tight division race?
One of their problems, however, is not going to heal with time. It’s big, structural and scary. And it’s the kind that scuttles a contender’s World Series hopes if it isn’t fixed— probably by the July 31 trade deadline.
The Nats’ bullpen “bridge” to get to excellent closer Drew Storen is built out of balsa wood. Right now, Indiana Jones, with a bullwhip, a grappling hook and a magic medallion, couldn’t swing across that gorge from the sixth inning to the ninth. When Manager Matt Williams waves to the bullpen, he doesn’t know whether he’s going to get lovely zeroes or a bag full of scorpions and snakes.
Sometimes Williams wants the right-hander, sometimes the lefty. Too often, when he hands the ball to a reliever, the sphere looks like a grenade with the pin pulled out.
Since spring training, everybody in baseball has asked the Nats, “How are you going to cover all those late innings of close games? Do you think your Six-Star Rotation will work eight innings every night?” The Nats said they had lots of good arms and options. Translation: They’re still looking for an answer.
None have panned out yet. Free agent Casey Janssen, who missed seven weeks, had a dazzling résumé from 2011 until mid-2014 but depends on a below-90 fastball and needs precision that rivals laser surgery to succeed. If he’s the in-house setup-man solution, part of the problem’s solved. If not, four-alarm blaze.
Last season, Clippard, Rafael Soriano, Jerry Blevins, Aaron Barrett, Craig Stammen, Ross Detwiler, Ryan Mattheus and Xavier Cedeno came in from the Nats’ bullpen 365 times. They all have since been traded, released or sent to the DL. That’s not “turnover.” In some countries, fewer people disappear in a putsch.
This season, the bullpen has been such a mess of injuries and arsonists that the Nats have used seven rookie pitchers— Matt Grace, Sammy Solis, A. J. Cole, Taylor Jordan, Rafael Martin, Taylor Hill, Felipe Rivero— and a rookie outfielder, Clint Robinson, in relief. The kid pitchers have a 4.82 ERA out of the bullpen. (The outfielder: 0.00.)
Normally, Rizzo doesn’t miscalculate, at least not by much. This time it sure looks like he did. You usually fix that by admitting the problem, looking at your areas of excess inventory, then manning up to make an “I’m-over-a-barrel” trade.
Luckily, the Nats have enough areas of organizational strength, including promising starting pitchers in the minors, to get a deal done, including arms such as Cole, Reynaldo Lopez, Joe Ross and Austin Voth. Middle infielder Wilmer Difo looks like a can’tmiss big leaguer.
The problem is that, at least potentially, any one of them could turn out to be extremely valuable — and under six-or-more years of team control. The reliever you would get back probably would be gone by 2016, although Chapman (every team’s fantasy) isn’t a free agent until ’17.
Can the Nats stomach the idea that their bullpen need is so severe they must, to a degree, put solution above price?
Also, the Nats have analyzed Janssen as a setup solution and checked that box. They see Blake Treinen as a fix, not a 4.45 ERA annoyance. In baseball, patience is usually good: Re-evaluate in haste, repent at leisure. The Nats hate to flip-flop on their baseball judgments. But this might be the exception to the rule.
So far, the Nats have looked at discount fixes, such as a minor trade for David Carpenter, excellent in 2013-14 but designated for assignment by the Yankees. That’s fine. But the Nats need to go fishing with a bigger boat.
What would a dream solution look like?
Get a dominant post season proven setup man who would fit into the Nats’ clubhouse. If he played for a team with a lousy record and had a rich $9.5 million contract in his free agent walk year, he certainly would be on the market. In other words, the ultimate rent-a-reliever. Yes, baseball loves irony: That would be Clippard.
The Nats traded him away to get infielder Yunel Escobar (.319), who’s producing. The A’s, 25-38, need to get hot fast or forget the playoffs. As their closer, Clippard has a 3.20 ERA with nine saves. His strikeout-walk ratio (22-13) could be a danger sign of age.
Many things have worked out well for the Nats this year despite their 32-30 start. Their “stars” have aligned— especially Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Storen and, soon, Anthony Rendon.
But this is also the age of super bullpens, such as those in Kansas City and St. Louis. If you consistently lose the seventh and eighth innings— and often the sixth, too, as the Nats have all season— it’s a burden that goes from onerous in June to fatal in October.
The solution doesn’t have to be Clippard, Papelbon or any other particular pitcher. But it has to be someone. What’s on hand either isn’t good enough or isn’t proven enough to bank on deep in the playoffs.
Grit your teeth and fix it. Or wish that you had.