An open question on who will be the Nationals’ closer
For those of us still getting past the Super Bowl, and with pitchers and catchers reporting in the week to come, a review of the baseball offseason might be in order. In doing so, we must open with closers.
Aroldis Chapman left the Cubs and returned to the Yankees, who agreed to pay him a record $86 million. The Cubs replaced Chapman with Wade Davis, who they acquired via trade with the Royals. The Royals elevated Kelvin Herrera, a stalwart from their own staff. The Dodgers maintained the status quo by giving incumbent Kenley Jansen $80 million over the same five years Chapman received. The Giants cleaned up baseball’s biggest mess by signing Mark Melancon away from the Nationals. And the Nationals . . . . Wait. What did I miss? Well, not much. The Nationals convene this week for their first spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla., 120 miles south of Viera, Fla., the only spring home they had ever known. There will be a freshness, then, to the entire pursuit — getting to know the complex, the town, the restaurants, the
They must also grow accustomed to a new closer. Those options don’t appear as enticing.
Before we get to the candidates, let’s be clear about the stakes. The Nationals have built not a Cubs-style juggernaut but a consistent winning machine with a sturdy foundation. Since 2012, only the St. Louis Cardinals have won more games — and just three more in that five-year period. Washington is constructed to contend for a sixth straight season in the National League East.
And oddly, that’s part of the problem with having the closer’s job TBD.
How can a team with expectations of competing for the sport’s most important prizes enter the season with such a glaring question mark?
Let’s try to find some possible answers. But first, we know the Nationals believe their current bullpen might need some help because they went after Melancon, whom they acquired by trade with Pittsburgh midway through last season. Melancon impressed on the field and in the clubhouse, saving 17 of his 18 opportunities, posting a 1.82 ERA and earning Washington’s pursuit in the offseason.
Ultimately, when the Giants went to four years and $62 million, the Nats gave way. That’s not only within their rights; it might be some combination of prudent and shrewd.
Closers pitch only 70-ish innings a season. A team plays more than 1,400. Is it wise to commit, say, $16 million to less than five percent of your innings? It’s a worthwhile debate being considered by both statheads and scouts. The Nats decided, for Melancon, it wasn’t worth that much.
But then they turned and pursued Jansen. Now, the offer was structured with plenty of deferred money — as is, by now, the Nationals’ way. But with spring training coming up, the nature of the offer isn’t really the point. It’s that they went there at all, because it shows that they’re not entirely comfortable with who they have.
That’s not what you’ll hear this week from General Manager Mike Rizzo, of course. Nor should you. Rizzo will say some version of the following: “We like our bullpen. Last year, we were second to the Dodgers in bullpen ERA, second to the Astros in fielding independent pitching (FIP) by relievers, third in walks and hits per inning pitched by relievers, and third in lowest walk percentage. We have a blend of experience and some dynamic young arms. We’re going to let them compete, and we’ll see who pitches the ninth.”
That’s fine. But if there is a bullpen revolution that’s about to happen — something some folks have assumed after watching Cleveland Manager Terry Francona use the otherworldly Andrew Miller in the most crucial moments of postseason games, whether it was the fifth or the ninth — the Nationals aren’t likely to lead it.
For one, it’s hard to imagine that kind of versatility being sustainable over the course of a six-month season. Secondly, Rizzo and Manager Dusty Baker are old-school enough that they believe pitching the ninth requires a certain constitution. Finally, the Indians always had their actual closer, Cody Allen, waiting behind Miller — another superb and experienced arm to bail them out further if needed.
So say it’s April 3 and the Nationals have received eight efficient one-run innings from Opening Day starter Max Scherzer and took a 2-1 lead into the ninth against Miami at Nationals Park. The bullpen door swings open, and out trots . . .
Blake Treinen? Not everyone can throw 96-97 mph with what is commonly referred to as “heavy sink.” Treinen can. And he may have fixed his fatal flaw. A year after giving left-handed hitters a .336 average and .934 on-base-plus-slugging percentage — unforgivable numbers for someone expected to get high-leverage outs — he held lefties to .221 and .737, respectively, last summer. He is 28. He has the stuff.
Yet he still makes some in the Nats’ clubhouse uneasy.
So, at 2-1, the bullpen door swings open, and out trots . . .
Shawn Kelley? The righthander who has already endured two Tommy John surgeries was last seen allowing Justin Turner’s two-run triple in the seventh inning of Game 5 of last year’s division series against the Dodgers — the blow that sealed the Nats’ fate, after which Kelley departed, looking as if he might have blown out his elbow again.
Apparently, he didn’t, and the Nats expect him healthy for spring. He was excellent in the first year of a three-year deal, with 80 strikeouts in 58 innings — closer-type numbers. But he has never done the job over the course of the season, and the Nats’ position players realize that, too.
To my mind, this is the most intriguing story line of the spring, and likely the season. The only ready-to-win team I can remember heading into a season with this glaring of a question mark at the back end was the 2003 Red Sox. They watched Alan Embree and Chad Fox blow an Opening Day gem by Pedro Martinez in Tampa, then had Bob Howry and Ramiro Mendoza give it up the next day. They reached Baltimore, and Fox issued a walk-off walk in one game. They went to Toronto, and Mike Timlin nearly blew a fourrun ninth-inning lead in another. By the time they got back to Boston for the home opener, the entire bullpen was booed upon introductions.
This certainly doesn’t mean the Nats will endure the same. Indeed, six of the eight division series participants a year ago went through some measure of back-end upheaval over the course of the year. A trade might be possible.
What we know, though, is the clubhouse realizes that — for now — there’s an internal competition to see who pitches the 70 most important innings of the season. Check back April 3, and see who appears when the bullpen door swings open. Check back again in August to see whether it’s the same guy. And check back in October to see whether this risky approach worked.