Nationals running out of options for finding closer
List of remaining free agents underwhelming
The show pieces are gone. Kenley Jansen went back to Los Angeles, Mark Melancon left the District for San Francisco and Aroldis Chapman will be throwing 100 mph in New York City.
The Washington Nationals made substantial offers to Melancon and Jansen. Melancon took more money from San Francisco. Jansen reportedly took less money from the Dodgers. Neither will be in Washington, leaving the same bullpen hole that has been there since the season ended. The Nationals do not have a closer and are running out of outside options.
The remaining free agent list is underwhelming. Former closers like Greg Holland, Neftali Feliz, Brad Ziegler and Santiago Casilla are available. Each is flawed.
Holland did not play last season because of Tommy John surgery. He put together back-toback All-Star seasons in 2013 and ‘14 as the closer in Kansas City. In 2015, his ERA increased by more than two runs and he had surgery Oct. 2. He would be a gamble.
Ziegler had tight numbers last season. Just a 2.25 ERA in 69 appearances with the Arizona
Diamondbacks and Boston Red Sox. He finished with 22 saves and 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings. Hidden in there is an issue with walks, an ominous layer for any would-be closer. Ziegler walked 3.4 per nine innings, his highest rate since 2010. He’s also 37 years old.
Feliz was once among the dominant closers in the American League. In 2010, he was an All-Star averaging a strikeout per inning. His numbers began to dip, then he had Tommy John surgery. He spent last season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, his third team in two years, finishing with a 3.52 ERA. But, his FIP (fielding-independent pitching) was 4.52. His average fastball velocity did jump back to 96 mph last season for the first time since 2011, according to Fangraphs. His 940 pitches thrown were also his most since 2011.
Casilla’s ERA has risen in each of the last three seasons. He was extremely effective in 2014. But, as each season has passed, Casilla, who will be 37 in the middle of next season, has lost effectiveness. He was demoted from the closer spot last season in San Francisco.
The comments from and track record of Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo suggest he is willing to start the season without an acquisition to be the closer. At Nationals Winterfest during the weekend, Rizzo said the ideal solution for a team is to develop a closer.
“We’re all trying to create our closer in-house,” Rizzo said. “And we feel that we have candidates for closers in-house. We’ve certainly got guys with the stuff to close, the makeup. We just don’t have an experienced guy who can close. I think that’s the best way to do it. When you’re in a position where you need a closer and there’s three elite closers on the market, the supply and demand of them drives up these contracts.”
That’s also the language of someone who made multiple offers and had them declined.
Rizzo has used multiple “in-house” closers in the past with mixed results. Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and others had been put in the position. Storen went through a whirlwind of success and failure like few other pitchers, losing the closer’s job multiple times only to regain it before his time with the Nationals ended via a trade last January.
“Everybody wants to go out and get somebody, and sometimes it’s right under your nose and you don’t even know it or see it,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “The hard part is, you don’t know until you get in action who can handle failure. That’s what it’s all about. Everybody can handle success, but how you handle failure and how you get over it in a short period of time is the key to closing.
“I always related to like being a cornerback. Nobody really pays attention as long as you’re shutting a guy down, but as soon as he scores late in the game — you could have shut him down all game, but now all they want to talk about is you got burned at the end by [Odell] Beckham [Jr.] or someone. It’s the same way here.”
Among the internal candidates are Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover. Kelley is a veteran who had a career-high strikeout rate last season and picked up seven saves. When the Nationals signed him to a three-year deal last offseason, they stressed how important it was to monitor Kelley’s outings because he has had Tommy John surgery twice. He left the mound in the 2016 postseason after throwing a pitch because he had lost feeling in multiple fingers. Rizzo has labeled Kelley as “doing well and getting ready for spring training” in a generic summation of Kelley’s offseason physical status.
Glover spent September pitching through a torn labrum in his hip after being called up in July. Offseason rest and rehabilitation is expected to heal it. He carries a stern confidence and 98-mph fastball, though his professional experience is limited to 78 appearances total in the minor and major leagues.
“It’s obviously in their hands 100 percent,” Glover said. “Whatever they want to do and whatever they want me to do, I’m going to do it. I’ve said that since Day 1. As far as if they throw me in that role, am I ready for it? Yeah. I’m ready for it. But, if they don’t want to do that and they want to go with somebody else, I’m perfectly fine with another role, too. I’m just going to do what they tell me to do.”
The first pitchers and catchers will be reporting to their spring homes in 60 days. That gives the Nationals two months to decide if they are going to gamble on a free agent, elevate someone already under contract or have spring training be a competition between the two. What they won’t have is one of the expensive sure things that were available in the winter.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said the ideal solution is to develop a closer.