When the Washington Nationals finished their 2016 campaign with a heartbreaking one-run loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, they lost the services of closer Mark Melancon, acquired at the trade deadline in a deal that cost Washington promising left-handed fireballer Felipe Rivero. They also lost right-hander Matt Belisle, who — perhaps for injury reasons, as he came back from his second disabled list stint of the year days before the end of the season — was left off the playoff roster despite being the team’s second-best and -most consistent reliever behind Melancon. The team quickly announced it was declining the option on swing man Yusmeiro Petit, who fell apart toward the middle of the season and ended up as one of the less effective Nationals pitchers in recent memory.
In other words, the Nats marched into the off-season with three vacancies in their bullpen. To date, they have filled none of them.
To be fair, Washington has a stable of interesting pitchers in the high minors — a class led by Koda Glover, a fast-rising 2015 draft pick with a fastball that touches 99 mph. However, Glover stumbled after being called up to the majors toward the end of the 2016 season, memorably giving up two home runs on consecutive pitches in separate games. (He later said, after the season ended, that he had been trying to pitch through a hip labrum tear.)
Other pitchers at Triple-A Syracuse had difficult 2016 campaigns: Trevor Gott, acquired last winter in a trade with the Los Angeles Angels for third baseman Yunel Escobar, had a lengthy DL stint sandwiched between 43 1/3 innings of 4.57 ERA, 1.48 WHIP ball in the minors. Starter A.J. Cole was called up to the Nationals to plug a hole in the rotation in August and never went back down, winning one start and losing two, but he turned in a middling 4.26 ERA, 1.33 WHIP performance with an 8-8 win/loss record as the Chiefs’ nominal ace. Syracuse closer Rafael Martin, who will be 33 this year, was tagged with a 4.56 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP over 49 1/3 innings in Syracuse, converting 22 of 26 save opportunities. Nats superstar Bryce Harper‘s older brother, 30th-round draft pick Bryan Harper, looked like he might finally break through to the majors, as the lefty put up a respectable 2.96 ERA with a 1.20 WHIP in 45 2/3 minor league innings and utterly dominated left-handed hitting — and then he went on the disabled list weeks before rosters expanded and ended up undergoing Tommy John surgery that will rule him out for 2017.
Perhaps most critically, the Nats front office has swung and missed in its attempts to bring a long-term closer to Washington. The team couldn’t come close to the bid the San Francisco Giants offered to ink Mark Melancon. They reportedly passed on Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman, whose well-publicized character issues are offset in the eyes of many baseball executives by his triple-digits fastball. Their top target was Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who was virtually untouchable in the Dodgers’ five-game victory over the Nats in the National League Division Series, and at 29 years old, with an outstanding track record, looked like a good long-term investment. But while the Nats reportedly offered Jansen more money, the Curaçaoan chose to return to Los Angeles, telling an Orange County Register beat writer, “It ain’t about the money all the time, man.”
Missing out on the top three closers on the market (and, perhaps, the preeminent closers in all of baseball at the moment) has been followed, for Washington, by a string of smaller losses. The front office watched as closer Wade Davis was traded from the Kansas City Royals to the defending world champion Chicago Cubs. Rumored trade talks for Chicago White Sox closer David Robertson and Tampa Bay Rays closer Alex Colome fizzled. Veteran setup man Brad Ziegler signed a contract with the division rival Miami Marlins. After a lengthy pursuit, former Royals closer Greg Holland boldly decided to attempt his comeback with the Colorado Rockies instead of in Washington. Reports last week suggest former San Francisco Giants closer Sergio Romo is on the verge of signing with the uber-wealthy Dodgers instead of heading to the Nats.
The Nats now acknowledge they will have to figure out who will be the team’s closer, with no obvious heir apparent to the ninth inning. But it’s not just Melancon who must be replaced — management must also find someone to pitch the 46 innings of 1.76 ERA, 1.09 WHIP ball that Belisle gave the team last year, as well as compensate for the loss of Petit, who pitched to a 4.50 ERA and 1.32 WHIP over 62 innings wearing the curly W.
Nats by numbers
The locks for the bullpen, barring a spring injury or a preseason trade, are right-handers Blake Treinen and Shawn Kelley and left-handers Sammy Solis and Oliver Perez. Glover will likely slot into one of the vacant spots. The other two could go to less appealing pitchers from the Nats’ farm or to non-roster invitees, which the front office has been stockpiling in the absence of any fresh major league pitching talent.
Treinen came into his own last season as the Nats’ fireman, regularly being deployed in high-leverage spots with runners on base to induce a groundball double play with his power sinker. His 2.28 ERA and 1.22 WHIP over 67 innings were the best of his young career. Among evaluators, Baseball-Reference loves him, ascribing 1.9 wins above replacement to the 28-year-old Kansan last year; Fangraphs is less sanguine, though, marking him up with a 0.5 WAR on the season. Steamer projects a 0.7 WAR campaign for Treinen this year. He is one of the candidates to close.
Kelley spent most of the season setting up for first Jonathan Papelbon and then, after the late July trade that dumped Papelbon out of the closer’s role, Melancon. He briefly handled closing duties while Papelbon was on the disabled list, with mixed results that included one disastrous game in which the Dodgers walked off on a Yasiel Puig “Little League home run” (after a hard groundball got by shortstop Danny Espinosa and then rolled underneath center fielder Michael A. Taylor’s glove for a game-ending error). Kelley put up 1.4 rWAR and 1.1 fWAR in his 58 innings of work last year, pitching to a 2.64 ERA with a stellar 0.90 WHIP offset only by his proclivity toward giving up home runs (1.4 average over nine innings). Steamer pegs him for a 0.9 WAR season in 2017. He’s also a candidate to close this year, although the two Tommy John surgeries in his past and the sight of him leaving the mound with an enigmatic arm injury after giving up what turned out to be a game-winning triple in Game 5 of the NLDS splash some cold water on the idea of him as the everyday ninth-inning guy.
Solis did not start the year on the active roster, but he was in Syracuse for just a couple of weeks before being called up when Belisle landed on the disabled list for the first time. The southpaw, who functioned in a jack-of-all-trades role during the season — sometimes a long man, sometimes setup, usually middle relief — delivered 41 quality innings of work in the majors and accumulated 1.1 rWAR and 0.8 fWAR. He owned a 2.41 ERA despite a so-so 1.27 WHIP. Steamer thinks he’ll slip a little in what will be his second full season in the majors, delivering half a win above replacement. He’s in the conversation for closer, although considered a less obvious choice than Treinen and Kelley by most pundits.
Perez was not so impressive. The 35-year-old Sinaloan veteran, signed to a two-year deal out of free agency last winter, threw an erratic 40 frames while putting up a dismal 4.95 ERA and 1.45 WHIP. By the time rosters expanded in September, he became a specialist in manager Dusty Baker‘s hands, pitching primarily to left-handed hitters (unlike Solis, who was generally trusted to retire right-handed batters). He was essentially a replacement-level player for the Nats in 2016, netting 0.1 WAR from both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs. Steamer projects he’ll be a little better in 2017 and will be worth 0.4 WAR.
So, what is general manager Mike Rizzo trying to replace? Melancon was worth 1.1 rWAR and 0.9 fWAR in his half-season with the Nats last year (a combined 2.8 rWAR and 1.8 fWAR, easily topping any Nats pitcher’s season). Belisle, who quietly had an excellent age-36 season in Washington, gave the team 1.1 rWAR and 0.7 fWAR on the season despite missing several weeks. Petit was essentially replacement-level, with 0.1 rWAR and -0.2 fWAR; those numbers suggest Washington can hand his innings over to a Triple-A pitcher like Cole or recently signed non-roster invitee Vance Worley and get essentially the same result, if not a slightly better one. Papelbon, who was released in early August, contributed a grand total of 0 rWAR to the Nats’ effort (Fangraphs is a little kinder, ascribing 0.3 fWAR to the veteran in his age-35 campaign).
Basically, Washington is hoping to mix and match its assortment of minor leaguers and non-roster invitees to provide ~2 WAR, to make up for its losses — and preferably find someone to equal Melancon’s contributions over the course of the season in the ninth inning, lest the team find itself forced to trade prospects for a more capable closer for the third straight season. The Nats won the National League East by eight wins over the New York Mets last year, so it has some cushion if all other things stay equal (spoiler: they won’t).
What’s the competition?
Jansen will be worth 1.6 WAR in 2017 by himself, Steamer projects. Its model thinks Melancon will regress substantially in his age-32 season, putting up 0.9 WAR; for what it’s worth, the Giants look like a probable wild card contender this season, before the 162 games are played. Cubs closer Davis is projected for 1.1 WAR.
Steamer gets things wrong all the time. But the Nats don’t have anyone projected to be a full win above replacement who will be coming out of their bullpen in 2017, and they’ve got three spots to try to scrape up two more wins using players who are the literal definition of replacement-level, at least on paper, if they want to match their 2016 bullpen’s performance (never mind exceed it).
The Fangraphs projection table pegs the Nats for the third-best record in the National League even with a bullpen that looks like a significant dropoff from last season, with a projected 90-win season that would be good for a berth in the NLDS. Projections suggest the team will once again benefit from weak sisters in the division, as the Mets are the only other NL East team projected to end up with a record above .500; however, they also suggest New York will close the gap a little, coming in six wins below the Nats during the regular season. The Mets suffered last year under the strain of numerous injuries, with many of its pitchers and position players missing time with injuries or attempting to play through them, and as the Nats learned in 2015, the injury bug can make the difference between a championship run and an October on the couch.
Of course, one of the harder issues to quantify by just looking at topline statistics is the impact of relying on players who better teams might have as Double- and Triple-A depth as role players on the Opening Day roster. Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron took a look in an excellent piece recently, which concluded that while the Nats’ best 10 players (an admittedly imperfect and arbitrary metric) are projected for comparable WAR to the Dodgers and Cubs’ best, their overall projected WAR is between six and eight full wins lower than those teams. That 45.6 WAR is still comfortably above the Mets and their 39.9 WAR, but it pretty clearly pegs the Nats as the third- or fourth-best team in the National League (the Giants lurk close behind with 42.3 WAR projected), which doesn’t bode well for a playoff run.
Mike Rizzo has succeeded in building a team that looks like a contender headed into every season. But no Nats GM has been able to build a team that has been successful in the postseason. The statistics show great bullpens are worth just a few wins above bad bullpens over the course of a season, but every piece of the team makes a difference. If the Nats end up facing the likes of Jansen, Davis, or Melancon in the NLDS this year — great pitchers in their own right who headline what look to be all-around strong bullpens — Rizzo could regret the cautious approach that has resulted in the team making no major free agent acquisitions this winter.