Bullpen problems continue with Kelley on DL
Before the season began, the argument for the Washington Nationals’ bullpen went like this: Shawn Kelley had been a closer in the past, so he was an option for the job. Koda Glover was young, ambitious and armed with active pitches. That also made him a choice. Sammy Solis was getting right-handed and left-handed batters out last season, making him a distant possibility, but, at the least, a late-inning, big-situation option.
All are now on the 10-day disabled list. Kelley was placed there Sunday because of a right trapezius strain. A.J. Cole was called up from Triple-A Syracuse to take his place on the roster. Glover has a back problem. Solis has left elbow inflammation. He has been on the disabled list since April 19.
Kelley was not pitching well. In 18 innings, he has allowed a staggering nine home runs, which is the same amount he allowed last season, his first in Washington, during 58 innings on the mound. Kelley has never allowed more than nine home runs in a single season during his nine-year career.
He is also under contract for next season. Relief pitching is the most volatile commodity in the major leagues, which is the basis for arguments to not spend lavishly on bullpens. Young players — like Glover last season — can have unexpected and superior seasons. Other players, like Matt Albers, can be suddenly resurrected.
Despite that, the Nationals took the rare step of providing Kelley, 33, and the recipient of two Tommy John surgeries, with a three-year deal when he was signed in December of 2015.
Last season, Kelley was effective. He finished with a 2.64 ERA and 0.90 WHIP. However, less than midway through his second season, he can’t get outs and is now injured, only adding to the season-long debacle in the bullpen. The Nationals are sixth in the National League in team ERA despite being last in bullpen ERA (5.21) by almost half a run.
Cole has been primarily a starter since joining the Nationals. He has not pitched well at Triple A this season. Cole comes to Washington with a 5.68 ERA in 10 starts for the Chiefs. He did have a quality stretch from May 20-June 8 when he put together a 2.81 ERA.
Despite the bullpen’s injuries and ineffectiveness, the Nationals have a firm grip on the National League East lead. They just took three of four games against the injury-saddled New York Mets. The trio of wins following a 2-5 homestand has put the Nationals 10.5 games up on the second-place Mets. Their 42 wins are fourth-most in the National League. It’s easy to wonder where they would be with an even average bullpen.