Midweek Musings: The Nats' Bullpen Luck is Turning

DAVE'S TAKE:

I have a confession to make. I am optimistic about the Nationals bullpen. I know you think I’m crazy for this and probably thinking don’t you remember 2015? And I do. The thing is I think this collection of arms is different. Remember in 2015 the bullpen wasn’t meant to be a bunch of rookies fighting over three to four spots. There was only supposed to be one or two spots up for grabs. Tanner Roark couldn’t make the transition to being a reliever and Craig Stammen got injured. Both those events threw everything into chaos and the Nationals were never able to find a replacement for Tyler Clippard and the deadline deal for Jonathon Papelbon only made matters worse when Drew Storen mentally collapsed.
 
The Nats that season had a collection of young, untested arms and they figured one or two had to work out and eventually Felipe Rivero wasn’t half bad, but nothing else worked. The 2017 Nationals don’t have a collection of young untested arms. They brought in veterans like Joe Nathan, Neal Cotts, Matt Albers, and Jeremy Guthrie and they still have a couple young arms like Trevor Gott and Enny Romero to throw into the mix or season at AAA until an injury or underperformance happens.
 
A proven closer may still be in the Nationals future but at this point I think it would be a mistake. Think about the situation the Nationals found themselves in with Rafael Soriano and Jonathon Papelbon. They had these highly paid closers they invested a lot into and they tried to get everything they could out of them even when it was obvious that they couldn’t do the job. The Nats have nothing invested in anyone right now and can move on quickly from Shawn Kelley, Koda Glover, or Blake Treinen if the need arises and with none of those players having been closers before a move to a lesser role is less likely to break them, and who knows maybe given the opportunity one of them will seize it.
 
Doesn’t it seem like most closers on most other teams come out of nowhere all of a sudden and then are great. Who was Zach Britton at this time last season but a failed starter hoping for one more shot at the majors? And now he’s one of the best closers in the American League. Not to say the Nats can duplicate that result but Zach Britton is just one example out of dozens of closers to emerge from out of nowhere over the last few seasons.
 
My other reason for being optimistic about the Nats bullpen situation has nothing to do with their strategy or the volatile nature of relief pitching but the Nats have had such bad luck over the last few seasons with players they’ve thrown out there. The last one I can think of that really struck gold for them was Michael Morse. In other words the Nats are due some good luck. They are due an unexpected breakout star and as the bullpen is currently constructed it is the land of opportunity for a player willing to take it.   

ALYSSA'S TAKE:

The irony in Dave’s take is that he declared his optimism for the Nationals’ bullpen just before news broke that the Nats have reportedly agreed to a one-year deal with right-handed veteran Joe Blanton.

Prior to the announcement, I would have categorized my feelings as “cautiously optimistic,” but the Blanton pick-up helps drive home Dave’s point. The Nats have a mix of solid bullpen options – including 42-year-old, non-roster pick-up Joe Nathan, who the Washington Post perfectly described as the Nats’ “ultimate curiosity.” While Nathan’s age – and two Tommy John surgeries – can carry a lot of question marks, his mere presence in camp raises the bar for the bullpen. If he just so happens to throw well, the Nats could gain something from his experience without ever breaking the bank.

To balance their seasoned arms, the Nats are building a stockpile of young, promising talent, even though they lack a superstar. More important than age is that Washington can actually afford the time this year to develop players in the Minors until injury or opportunity beckons. Along with Koda Glover – who turns 24 this April – Enny Romero (26), Blake Treinen (28), and Sammy Solis (28) are the most likely under-30 candidates to make the roster. There’s been some talk about Glover potentially earning the closer role, but I’d argue that his value rises if the Nats take the time to work with him in Triple-A or Double-A, at least to start the year. Nevertheless, the most exciting thing about this year’s bullpen, in my opinion, is that the Nats can test the waters with any combination of young and veteran relievers, and they can restructure their bullpen arrangement fairly quickly. They can adjust their bullpen rather than be forced to make adjustments around their bullpen.

I’ll agree that the Nats are due for some good luck – and that the Nats’ bullpen is built in such a way that you almost expect a star to emerge. What’s more encouraging about the team’s approach this year is that the Nats have done their part to create their own luck: they didn’t light money on fire in pursuit of a name, and they don’t even seem shaken by the fact that their probable front-runner for the closer role – Shawn Kelley – is himself a two-time recipient of Tommy John surgery. 

And, guess what? I’m not worried either.

My thoughts on the closer role – for any team – change year after year. I feel that, for certain teams, the closer is an integral part of the team’s culture; without that designated hero on the back-end, teams with lackluster offense or a sub-par middle relief corps crumble. But, the Nats, instead, have tried the route of adding a ninth-inning hero – or two – and it just hasn’t worked. By shifting their focus to the overall bullpen package, the Nats have seemingly declared that they care more about what the collective mix can provide than about who’s closing things out. Not for nothing, a closer is only valuable if the guys before him can maintain a lead, and I’m more confident that the Nats have the right makeup to do that – even if they kick off the season with a trial-and-error approach.

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