HELP WANTED

Na­tion­als seek an­swers to fix­ing worst bullpen in team his­tory

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY TODD DYBAS

Stand­ing be­hind the bat­ting cage in Dodgers Sta­dium two weeks ago, Mike Rizzo and Ken­ley Jansen had a chat. A photo of Jansen shows him smil­ing. Rizzo’s face is not vis­i­ble, but imag­in­ing what was go­ing through his mind dur­ing the con­ver­sa­tion is a fun ex­er­cise. There was Jansen, the Los An­ge­les Dodgers burly closer who has struck out 50 bat­ters and walked none this sea­son, an arm’s length away af­ter an off­sea­son when he chose to be 3,000 miles apart from the Na­tion­als, who have the Na­tional League’s worst bullpen.

Since Rizzo be­came the Na­tion­als gen­eral man­ager in 2009, he has seen a Wash­ing­ton bullpen like the 2017 edi­tion one other time. That was in his first sea­son when the Na­tion­als lost 103 games, top­ping the grotesque to­tal of 102 losses the sea­son be­fore. That bullpen fin­ished with a 5.09 ERA, last in the Na­tional League.

Wash­ing­ton re­mained un­der con­struc­tion then. Rizzo had just re­placed the fired Jim Bow­den, who had strip­mined the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s mi­nor league sys­tem and as­sem­bled a bum­bling ma­jor­league ros­ter. Rizzo bent the or­ga­ni­za­tional arc up­ward, po­si­tion­ing the team again this sea­son to be among the Na­tional League con­tenders. Trou­ble is, he has a 2009-level bullpen on his hands and needs to fix it as the sea­son churns along.

A quick re­cap of how the Na­tion­als ar­rived at a 5.20 ERA in the bullpen, the worst in their his­tory: Jansen and Mark Me­lan­con de­clined off­sea­son con­tract of­fers. Wash­ing­ton signed for­mer Dodgers re­liever Joe Blan­ton late in spring train­ing. It signed Matt Al­bers, the team’s most ef­fec­tive re­liever, in Jan­uary, re­leased him at the end of spring train­ing, then re-signed him April 4, the day af­ter Open­ing Day. What Wash­ing­ton did not do was sign an es­tab­lished closer, leav­ing man­ager Dusty Baker all but beg­ging for one now.

“I hon­estly feel that a bona fide closer would put every­body in a po­si­tion where they should be,” Baker said last week.

In­juries have been a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor. Koda Glover, who was the third choice for the role, has been on the dis­abled

list twice. The sec­ond time stalled what ap­peared to be a push by him to take the closer’s role and keep it. Even if that oc­curred, the Na­tion­als would still be hunt­ing for more bullpen help.

They have been qui­etly mak­ing moves in the mi­nor leagues to cre­ate help. Top prospect Erick Fedde was moved to the bullpen at Dou­ble-A Har­ris­burg be­fore be­ing pro­moted to Triple-A Syra­cuse on June 13. In 2 in­nings at Syra­cuse, Fedde has a 6.75 ERA. Op­po­nents are hit­ting .462 against him. He could set­tle off. He also could not be ready by the end of the sea­son.

Sammy So­lis and Shawn Kel­ley were both in­ef­fec­tive be­fore go­ing on the dis­abled list. The swing in ben­e­fit from that pair has been dev­as­tat­ing to the bullpen. So­lis was a re­li­able power lefty who pitched late in­nings last sea­son. Kel­ley’s high strike­out rate made him a late-in­ning op­tion, too. Nei­ther can get outs this sea­son. Now, they’re hurt.

Wash­ing­ton’s hunt for help has about six weeks re­main­ing. The trade dead­line hits July 31. Un­like past sea­sons, Rizzo has limited op­tions at his dis­posal to fix this prob­lem. Trad­ing pitch­ers Lu­cas Gi­olito and Rey­naldo Lopez in the off­sea­son for cen­ter fielder Adam Ea­ton chopped Wash­ing­ton’s prospect pool. It also elim­i­nated the chance for one of those young pitch­ers, most likely Lopez, to be an op­tion for the bullpen at this stage, much the way Fedde is be­ing groomed to be (at least tem­po­rar­ily). How­ever, nei­ther may have been much help. Gi­olito has a 4.92 ERA in Triple A. Lopez has a 3.91 ERA, but a 1.30 WHIP in Triple A.

Two names viewed as pos­si­ble salves for the Na­tion­als are Chicago’s David Robert­son and Philadel­phia’s Pat Neshek. Wash­ing­ton has been try­ing to dance with Robert­son since the off­sea­son. The White Sox’s closer has been solid, if not spec­tac­u­lar, this sea­son. He has a 3.20 ERA. The stick­ing point with any trade for Robert­son will be his con­tract: what re­mains of a $12 mil­lion deal this sea­son, plus $13 mil­lion next sea­son. That’s the kind of money Wash­ing­ton has been his­tor­i­cally ret­i­cent to pro­vide a closer.

Philadel­phia’s Neshek is hav­ing the best year of his ca­reer. His 0.67 ERA com­ing into Mon­day is more than two runs bet­ter than it was a sea­son ago. The Phillies are out of it to such a de­gree that Neshek has pub­licly stated he ex­pects to be traded.

An­other name to con­sider is White Sox re­liever Tommy Kahnle. The 27-yearold right-han­der has a 1.27 ERA and 48 strike­outs in 48 1/3 in­nings. He is also in­ex­pen­sive, mak­ing just $535,000 this sea­son with ar­bi­tra­tion com­ing in the off­sea­son. He is un­der team con­trol un­til 2020. Those are all rea­sons why Wash­ing­ton would be in­ter­ested. They are also rea­sons why the re­build­ing White Sox would choose to keep him bar­ring a lux­u­ri­ous trade pack­age.

If the names to help are un­cer­tain, two things are: first-place Wash­ing­ton has lit­tle lever­age across a league that knows its des­per­a­tion for re­liev­ers. It also has not found an­swers from within.

“It’s a tough sit­u­a­tion right now be­cause a lot of teams feel they’re still in it and no­body’s go­ing to give up noth­ing right now,” Baker said. “You don’t want to just go get some­body to go get some­body. If you’re not re­ally im­prov­ing the qual­ity above what you have now -- plus every­body knows what you need. It’s a tough sit­u­a­tion.

“I know [Rizzo] is ad­dress­ing it. But, for now, no­body’s go­ing to give you any­thing. Or, if they give you some­thing, they’re go­ing to rob you for it. This is the sit­u­a­tion we al­ready dis­cussed it. I told you back in March that save by com­mit­tee doesn’t re­ally work. Re­mem­ber I told y’all that?”

Two nights af­ter Jansen talked to Rizzo on the field in Los An­ge­les, he bridged from the eighth in­ning to the ninth, strik­ing out one, al­low­ing a hit and claim­ing his 10th save. Since, his ERA has been drilled down to 0.91. He has al­lowed one run in the last two months, mow­ing down the league with his pre­ferred Dodgers blue on. Mean­while, Rizzo has been search­ing for a so­lu­tion own­er­ship will pay for in prospects or cash. He has six weeks to find it.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als re­liever Koda Glover was the third choice to be the team’s closer, and two trips to the dis­abled list this sea­son have stalled his push for the role.

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