Monday Breakdown: The Nats' Bullpen
The Nats bullpen is in an interesting place. The injury to Jonathan Papelbon exposed their lack of depth, but at the same time the Washington Nationals haven’t used much of their bullpen depth or their bullpen at all. The Nationals starting pitchers lead the NL with 440 2/3 innings pitched and the bullpen 28th in the majors with 192 innings pitched. The Nats starters are carrying the pitching staff.
The real impact of Papelbon’s injury is that the Nationals are suddenly without a set-up man. Shawn Kelley’s fantastic season just means he’s now the closer and the Nationals are now struggling to hand the ball to him. With Papelbon as closer the Nationals were able to have the starter go seven innings and then bring in Kelley and Papelbon, and while Papelbon’s performance wasn’t pleasing to the fans he got the job done more often than he didn’t and was as good or better than most internal options.
Now we have reached the big question and I sure hope Alyssa has an answer because I don’t. I will make a vain attempt to provide some options of what the Nats should do. The Nats should look at this in a few ways. The bullpen needs to be better. Shawn Kelley has proven to be their best reliever and has pitched the 8th and 9th. It is doubtful there would be a Drew Storen situation if he were moved out of the closers role. It is also not a bad option to leave him in the closers role and attempt to acquire a set-up man. It all depends on what is available as we get closer to the trade deadline.
I haven’t checked the pulse of America to know if people have forgiven Aroldis Chapman or not or if they are ok enough with him as a crappy human being to have him be a good reliever on their team or not. We’ll leave him out of it then and list the options I’d like as Andrew Miller, Alex Colome, Will Smith, and/or Kyle Barraclough.
Heading into the 2016 season, the Washington Nationals’ bullpen represented arguably the team’s biggest question mark, second only, perhaps, to the team's bench. Jonathan Papelbon’s injury all but ensures that’s the case as the All Star Break looms near. The good news is, my bold prediction of Papelbon achieving double-digit blown saves seems a bit less realistic with two+ weeks removed from his calendar; the bad news is, so, too, does TJ’s hope of 35+ saves seem a bit out of reach.
As Dave pointed out, the Nats’ bullpen represents a sort of elephant-in-the-room scenario, except that no one has had to acknowledge the obvious dearth of bullpen options until now because the team has been spoiled by starting pitching. Nevertheless, while Papelbon has had health on his side for the better part of his career, a two-week(+) stint on the DL represents a bit of an unexpected wrench in the Nats' bullpen plans.
As if to shine a spotlight on the Nats’ obvious lack of late-innings options, Washington tasked reliever Shawn Kelley with five outs to record his first save in Papelbon’s absence. Luckily, Kelley was lights-out, as he was two days later when he tossed another 1 2/3 innings, and again the next day when he recorded his second save. Kelley certainly appears to be the Nats’ best relief option, however, the Nats will have to think strategically about how often they use him considering his two Tommy John surgeries. Nevertheless, if the glove fits, Kelley could remain a viable closer option for the Nats, even if and when Papelbon’s two-week time frame is extended.
That said, there are tempting closer options on the table, albeit at a price. It seems almost ridiculous that the Nats would shop for another closer with Papelbon in tow, since so many (myself included) questioned why the Nats needed Papelbon in the first place.
Alas, here we are. And, it seems unfortunately appropriate that arguably the most tempting “get” to fill Papelbon’s shoes would be a closer whose own character remains very much under the microscope: Aroldis Chapman.
The New York Yankees look poised to sell before the deadline, and they face as good an opportunity as ever to offload the left-hander, who will end the year as a free agent. Considering that the Yankees’ Andrew Miller has performed better than Chapman, I'd argue that it's much less likely New York will deal him. The same goes for reliever Dellin Betances who, despite his struggles this season, remains an absolute steal as he continues to earn the league minimum.
There are slightly less draw-dropping bullpen tactics the Nats could pursue, as well. To start, the Nats could continue to hold out hope that Felipe Rivero will get back on track. On the other hand, both he and Blake Treinen still have options available, but sending either down would likely require the Nats to dip a bit deeper into their farm system than they are hoping to do. Dave’s picks of Alex Colome, Will Smith, and Kyle Barraclough are certainly worth consideration, but if the Nats are looking to carry on the tradition of landing the big “buy” to restock their arsenal, I'd argue that all signs point to New York.