Washington Nationals Building on the Margins
The biggest need for the Washington Nationals in the 2016 offseason is bullpen. The problem is out of a very few select relievers relief pitching is the most volatile commodity in sports. A lot of that has to do with the fact that a relief pitcher's life is a small sample size. Shawn Kelley, who the Nationals have allegedly reached a deal with, pitched to a 4.35 ERA in 2014 and a 2.45 ERA in 2015 with FIPs of 3.02 and 2.57 in those respective seasons. In both seasons his peripherals said he was a productive reliever but in 2014 the results just weren't there. A relief pitcher's job is to maintain the score until the offense has the chance to change it, and a good FIP and bad ERA still means the job isn't getting done.
Shawn Kelley, Oliver Perez, and Petit are all solid veteran relievers that have had success in the past. They represent what the Nationals didn't have in 2015. Relievers are volatile and always question marks but minimizing those question marks as much as possible is of a heightened importance when it comes to relief pitching. In 2015 the Nationals went with a bullpen that was full of question marks. Drew Storen was coming off another poor performance in the post-season and Nationals fans remember how that carried over in 2013, Tanner Roark was moving from starting to relieving and while most good relief pitchers are failed starters it's always a question on how that transition will go for an individual pitcher, Matt Thornton was old, Casey Janssen was coming off of the worst season of his career and injury, and when Craig Stammen got injured the Nationals lost the guy with the least question marks and were forced to throw a bunch of rookies at the wall hoping something stuck.
It was a plan that made some sense. Out of Blake Treinen, Aaron Barrett, and almost every other rookie pitcher in the Nats system one of them had to be able to be a productive reliever. The problem was when Stammen and Janssen started the season on the DL it was no longer a fight for one spot but for two, and then Roark didn't transition to a reliever as well as expected, Thornton showed his age, and nothing was going right. The 2015 Nationals tried to build middle relief from a mass of rookies and it didn't work. The 2016 Plan isn't much different but it will be a middle relief core of veteran relievers with solid track records and none of them approaching 40.
The bullpen still needs work. Storen and Papelbon are both still likely to be headed out of town and while Kelley, Perez, and Petit are solid middle relievers the Nats lack a back end. Missing out on O'Day, Kimbrel, and Chapman (sort of) means the true back end relief pitcher market is down to Tyler Clippard or an unexpected trade. The Nats don't have much in their system in the way of relief pitching and have shown an unwillingness to use pitching prospects in major league relief roles. It's easy to discount the job of a closer and set-up man as just 60-70 innings of work in games a team is already leading but those are games that should be won and giving those games away can be very costly to the hopes of a contending team.
Outside of the bullpen the Nationals haven't been rumored to be in on much. The reportedly made an offer to Mike Leake, he thought he was worth more, the Nats didn't agree and are now linked to Scott Kazmir and Wei-Yin Chen. The Nats are interested in adding a back of the rotation starter. Either to leave Tanner Roark in the bullpen or to make someone like Gio Gonzalez available in a trade. Like the bullpen moves this would be a smaller move, but unlike the bullpen moves the Nats top of the rotation is set. They could use better production from the back of the rotation but with Scherzer and Strasburg they have a solid one-two in the rotation and it is extremely likely that Lucas Giolito will be in the major league rotation at some point in 2016.
There are other players that would help the Nats but not much is a need. The big problem with viewing the offseason is very few people count on the production of prospects, but consider where the Cubs, Mets, and Pirates would have been in 2015 if it weren't for Bryant, Syndergaard, and Kang. Michael Taylor, Trea Turner, Joe Ross, Lucas Giolito, and others have a chance to have more of an impact on the Washington Nationals in 2016 than almost anyone they could sign on the free agent market. They can all be called unknowns or unproven but the Nats don't need them to be great, they have Harper and Scherzer to do that, they need them to be average major league talent. The Nats had no position players other than Bryce Harper over 3.0 fWAR in 2015 and that just isn't a recipe for success.
The Nats moves so far show that they are building on the margins when it comes to pitching and going to pin their hopes for the position players on Anthony Rendon getting healthy and the second year and rookie players to not fall flat on their faces. The Nats could have a surprise move or two up their sleeves to improve their chances in 2016, but those moves are unlikely to add near as much production as a healthy Anthony Rendon and the collection of rookies being able to provide average major league production.