An open ques­tion on who will be the Na­tion­als’ closer

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BARRY SVR­LUGA barry.svr­luga@wash­post.com For more by Barry Svr­luga, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/svr­luga.

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

rou­tines.

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.

Barry Svr­luga

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