Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you’ll have noticed one of the major talking points in the Major leagues has been the Nats bullpen seemingly giving away leads like they’re going out of style. And it’s not just been exclusive to the current crop of relievers located out in Right Field at Nats Park. This has been an issue for the Nationals for a long time, as many will recall similar implosions in 2015 and 2016; not to mention the high profile Blown Save in the NLDS way back 2012 by Drew Storen. So how can the Nats “blow-pen” to give it it’s affectionate name, be so bad.
Lack of a true Closer
Probably the biggest need right now, is that of a real lock-down 9th inning guy, which has been another issue that appears to have largely carried over from previous seasons. After losing Mark Melancon‘s contract expired at the end of last season; Mike Rizzo pursued Melancon and Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen aggressively this off-season, only to see them both end up in the NL West. With no rewards to show for his efforts, barring a brief flirtation with David Robertson from the White Sox, the Nats entered Spring Training without a sure-fire closer amongst their ranks.
At the time, this didn’t seem a huge issue, as they had several candidates who seemed ready to step up to the plate to prove themselves as the 9th inning guy. Initially the job awarded to Blake Treinen (eurgh, still getting horrid flashbacks), seemed like the solid choice, and after the first game of the season when he looked filthy all seemed great. But Treinen faltered, giving the job up to Shawn Kelley, who duly got injured, so the job went to Glover who then got injured too. So early on the Nats were scrambling, piecing together some 9th innings with Matt Albers and Enny Romero. Then just when Glover got back and looked comfortable in the 9th inning; he got injured again and leaves the Nats back at square one with their closer role.
Prone to the Home Run
Any hitter will tell you, the best way to get back into a game in a hurry is via the long ball. Not only does it bring the runs across in a hurry; the mental toll it can take on a pitcher is an understate part of this. Just look at Shawn Kelley as a single example; he’s given up 9 Dingers in just 18 innings, which for those who can do math is 1 every other inning (or 4 1/2 per 9 innings). Then we add in Joe Blanton (a late free agent signing who had excelled with the Dodgers), who has given up 8 HRs in just 16 innings, including surrendering one to the Mets as I write this piece on Saturday; only marginally better than Kelley, it’s a pretty horrid site for Nationals fans.
Most of the time, giving up a Home Run is on the pitcher, leaving a hanging breaking ball or fastball right down the middle; either through sloppy execution or getting behind early in the count leaving little room for error. Both of these are crucial to avoid for pitchers like Blanton and Kelley who don’t have the heat that many other relievers in this day and age do. You have to think that the two names mentioned here aren’t exactly in the safest situation, and could be DFA’d at any point to bring in some fresh blood one way or another. If they can kill their home run surrendering habit fast, they may yet survive another day if there is indeed a mass bullpen cull towards the trade deadline.
It all adds up..
The whole Nats bullpen situation isn’t self-contained either; the knock on effects of it’s general ineffectiveness have a massive knock-on effect to the ball club as a whole. For example, take the Nationals main 4 starters (the 5th starter has been a revolving door, so let’s ignore it for now); they currently occupy 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th in the National league in number of pitches thrown. This is because Dusty Baker is trying to extend his starters outings (not an unfamiliar feeling with Baker), to prevent going to the bullpen to early and relying on them too much. Sure this all looks fine in June, but come September and October, when the Nationals really will need their Starters if they want to overcome the NLDS hump, will they have much left in the tank?
And as much as people in the dugout won’t admit it to the press, the amount of late leads getting blown, or one run games getting out of hand fast will take a huge mental toll on the players themselves. I mean, how would you feel if you’re closing in on a promotion at work, only for a colleague to let you down on a task and blow it for you. That’s essentially what’s going on right now, as much as the Nats can put on a front for the media, I can assure you that until the bullpen resolves their issues, there’s going to be some friction in the clubhouse. Not to mention how every time a 1 run lead shows itself late in games, how it seems accepted that they’re going to lose it; it’s crazy!
The Positives? Are there any?
As doom and gloom as it may seem at times, believe it or not there are actually a few positives to take out of this year’s bullpen. A couple of the lower-key additions have been looking incredibly good right now. Matt Albers is quickly becoming a cult hero (despite himself recording a blown save a few days ago). A guy who was offered a Minor League deal before the season, has been the Nats most reliable reliever this season; and is currently the go-to guy with Koda Glover on the shelf. He’s managed to up his velocity to mid/upper 90s and has incredible movement on his 2 seam fastball so he looks legit right now. You may remember Matt Albers from this AMAZING clip from last season, where he hit a double in Extra Innings against the Mets, scored the winning run, and got the Win himself.
Also, after some shaky appearances early on; Enny Romero appears to finally be harnessing his upper 90/ sometimes triple digits fastball and knockout slider and becoming a weapon in the bullpen. With Romero, as seems to be said a lot these days about pitcher; he always had the stuff to succeed but could he command it and translate it to success. He now appears to be doing so, in a high-leverage role. Finally, before a nagging injury sent him to the DL for a second time, Koda Glover looked mighty impressive as the Nats closer; and will probably reclaim his role upon return. When he was first promoted to the Bigs, he had the stuff and demeanour to be the Nats closer of the future; and if he comes back healthy, then DC may finally have the beginnings of a solid if not spectacular bullpen brewing.
How do they fix the misery?
Well in the immediate future, it looks like a case of just bearing the brunt of the woes; with any team willing to talk to the Nats about a trade for a high value reliever will hold all the leverage and demand a high price. The best they can do right now is just chucking as much…erm…mud(?) at the wall and seeing what sticks with some of the arms from Triple A. They tried that earlier this week with Trevor Gott, who did look impressive till they asked him to go 2 innings and he imploded before being sent back down again. Matt Grace is the latest arm to be called up, but don’t be shocked to see Joe Nathan or Austin Adams (who I will love forever as he got Danny Espinosa of the Nats!) in the not too distant future.
I think the whole world right now knows the Nats need to make a trade towards or at the Trade Deadline at the end of July. But unlike last season when the Yankees dealt away Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller; there isn’t any lock-down 9th inning talent available this year. The most likely to be traded right now are probably David Robertson and Kelvin Herrera (although the Royals are creeping back into contention which could see the latter saved). Personally I would like to see the Nats really go after a Lorenzo Cain and Kelvin Herrera package; with the Royals being a low-budget team, they may consider blowing up their current roster, many of whom have contracts up this year, for a package of prospects to build the new golden generation. But as long as a positive move or moves are made for the bullpen; I won’t be complaining too much. Who knows, maybe the front office will surprise us with a blockbuster for someone; as they’ve repeatedly said lately “If we can get a shut down 9th inning guy, the rest of the bullpen should fall into place”.