Early Harbinger: Bullpen woes could derail another Nationals season

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals

The Washington Nationals suffered a ten-inning, 4-3 loss to the Florida Marlins, on Thursday night. The culprit – a late-inning, bullpen meltdown – was an all-to-familiar theme for fans of the D.C. ballclub.
The Nationals’ faithful have had their hearts scarred over, time and time again, from the litany of promising seasons flushed down the crapped by struggling relievers.
Nearly everyone had a hand in the destruction, Thursday night. Set-up man, Shawn Kelly started the bleeding by allowing a 407-foot home run to Marlins catcher, J.T. Realmuto.
In the top of the ninth, closer Blake Treinen warmed up furiously as Sammy Solis began putting men on base. It was all for naught, as Treinen allowed the tying single by former-Nat Tyler Moore. Newcomer Joe Blanton iced the cake in the tenth, giving up what would prove to be the game-winning run.
Washington will have a day to recoup and lick its wounds before its next series in Philadelphia. Fans will have a day to murmur amongst themselves about the viability of this year’s group of relievers.
Of course, we’re three games into the baseball calendar, and it is way too early to panic. That doesn’t mean Nat’s fans won’t be restlessly-squirming in their armchairs the next time their team is clinging to a one-run lead.
There is a schism throughout professional, on how much to value relievers. Traditionally, emphasis revolves around the closer – a big-man stopper who can slam the door on games. In this model, a financial premium is paid to guys who have gaudy saves totals – and, therefore, a “proven track record” of closing-success.
The other theorem has been advanced by new school GM’s such as Oakland’s Billy Beane. They view relievers as volatile assets who, like stocks on the market, should be dealt at the peak of their value.
So which school of thought is the better approach? While it’s true that saves are a grossly-overrated statistic, there is substantial value in having capable plugs ready to fill those late-inning holes.
The Kansas City Royals made it to back-to-back World Series on the strength of a three-headed, bullpen monster of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Most-recently, the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs advanced to the Fall Classic, after making in-season deals to acquire premium bullpen arms (Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, respectively).
The Nationals have tried their hand at the trade game, which has produced a mixed-bag of results. The good: Mark Melancon, who pitched well, last year, after being acquired from Pittsburgh. Despite the numbers, you never watched him pitch and felt he was anything but a Plan B-type of guy. Apparently, the Nationals had seen enough, as well; Melancon was allowed to leave as a free agent.
Then there was the Jonathan Papelbon experiment. Washingtonians certainly remember how well THAT worked out. The mercurial reliever not only struggled on the mound and scuffled with teammates, but his acquisition seemed to destroy the psyche of incumbent closer, Drew Storen – leaving the Nationals with two useless players and a lot of headaches.
This winter, there were premium, closing options on the marketplace. Kenley Jansen and Chapman were both out there, but Nat’s GM Mike Rizzo opted to promote internally. On March 31st, the club announced that the job belonged to the sinkerballer, Treinen.
“He may give up a hit or a walk, but he’s always one pitch away from getting two outs with one pitch,” said Nationals Manager Dusty Baker, that on the day of the announcement.
That wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. In other words, he might slam the door shut on some games…but he might also slam it on your fingers in the process.
Relievers who live and die by the ground ball are often at the mercy of the baseball (or, namely, BABIP) gods. While Treinen can miss bats (8.5 K/9 as a reliever), he also has an uninspiring 1.307 WHIP in that span.
The Nationals always seem to be lacking in a commodity that other clubs seem to have in surplus: young, live arms. They could be failed-starters or college relievers with a real nasty pitch, the guys that come in and blow hitters away with upper 90’s gas.
They have had a few arms like that pass through the system: Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito, Nate Karns and Ian Krol to name a few. Their stuff could have been handy coming out of the pen, down the stretch, but the Nationals have been shy employing that strategy.
Instead, Rizzo has chosen to round out his bullpen, over the years, with cheap veterans and castoffs (Oliver Perez, anyone?). While I suppose that’s preferable to throwing $40 million at the Huston Street’s of the world, the constant search for Plan B carries a whiff of class, Lerner-cheapness.
Hopefully it won’t cost them again, in the long run.

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