Nationals seek answers to fixing worst bullpen in team history
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.
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.