Grading the 2017 Washington Nationals: Pitchers

The term has ended, and now the report card is due.

How did the Washington Nationals fare in 2017? Some excelled. Some disappointed. While we lick our wounds from another first-round loss in the playoffs, let’s take a look back at the men who contributed to another Nats season.

In this round, we’ll look at pitchers.

You know, I thought about splitting this category into starting pitchers and relief pitchers, but then I remembered that no fewer than four Nats — Tanner Roark, A.J. Cole, Matt Grace, and Jacob Turner — actually did both this season. (And one more did in the postseason. Let’s not talk about it.)

Max Scherzer

OK, I lied. Let’s talk about it. Max Scherzer’s season ended in about the worst possible way: with a blown lead and a loss in a decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series. It was Scherzer’s first relief appearance since the 2013 postseason, when he was with the Detroit Tigers, and a rare appearance for the right-hander on short rest (he had pitched into the seventh inning three days earlier as the Game 3 starter).

Even still, Scherzer enjoyed a characteristically dominant season, one that very well could see him repeat as the National League Cy Young Award winner. Scherzer posted the lowest WHIP among NL starters at 0.90, the second-lowest ERA at 2.51, and the highest strikeout total with 268. By the numbers, it was the best season of his sterling career; he actually posted more than a full win above replacement over his CYA-winning 2016 campaign, according to Baseball-Reference, which pegs him for 7.3 WAR this year. All this despite missing a few weeks and having a couple starts truncated by neck and leg issues that dogged him throughout the back half of the season.

A pattern is beginning to emerge with Scherzer of par excellence during the first half and merely very good numbers in the second half. This year, his ERA over the first half was 2.10, with an unreal 0.78 WHIP; those numbers rose in the second half, during which he missed significant time, to 3.24 and 1.12 respectively. This manifested most in his command, as his (low) walk rate nearly doubled in the second half. Even still, on balance, Scherzer is one of those guys no hitter enjoys facing, as he will probably strike you out at least once and make you look bad, and he just doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He’s certainly one of the three best pitchers in the NL, and one of the others is his teammate.

Still, there’s one big knock on Scherzer, and it’s his ego. His ego doesn’t manifest in him shooting off his mouth to reporters or getting into public spats with teammates or coaches. It manifests in him taking unnecessary risks with his own body because he believes he can handle it. We won’t ever know for sure what happened, why Scherzer was so shaky in his last appearance of the year, but one of Scherzer’s last starts of the regular season was marred by controversy as he appeared to hit a wall in the seventh inning, walking the bases loaded — something he just doesn’t do — and then getting hammered for a bunch of runs as manager Dusty Baker kept him in the game. Scherzer and Baker both stuck to the script in the postgame, insisting that it was part of a “game plan”, with Scherzer saying he thought it worthwhile to pitch with fatigue to prepare for the playoffs. Scherzer, as quoted by sports media, asked us to trust him. But when the dust cleared from Game 5, it was Scherzer’s name listed as the losing pitcher of the Nats’ final game of 2017.

Grade for Max Scherzer: A-

Stephen Strasburg

Don’t worry. These won’t all be as long as Scherzer’s entry. For some Nats, even those who were major contributors to the season, there’s just not that much to say. Stephen Strasburg falls into that category. His performance this year, especially down the stretch, speaks for itself.

Despite missing a little less than a month with a nerve issue in his arm in the second half, Strasburg made 28 starts this season, his highest total since he led the major leagues with 34 in the 2014 season. He then made two more in the postseason, including a Game 4 gem that came as a surprise after Baker told reporters the previous day that (alternately) Strasburg was sick (he was), he was off his routine after missing a customary bullpen session (he wasn’t), and the Nats had planned on starting Tanner Roark all along (Roark never got into a game during the NLDS). After coming off the disabled list and starting Aug. 19 in his hometown of San Diego, Strasburg posted an 0.84 ERA across eight regular-season starts and then a 0.00 ERA across his two postseason starts. Put another way, he gave up five earned runs in 67⅔ innings between Aug. 19 and Oct. 11. So. Um. Yeah.

Strasburg will undoubtedly get CYA votes, but his season totals aren’t quite as shiny as Scherzer’s: 2.52 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 6.5 rWAR, 204 strikeouts, and he pitched about 25 fewer innings. Still, it’s tough to imagine a better stretch run for any pitcher, and you might be hard-pressed to find another starting pitcher in major league history who sustained that kind of dominance for almost two months. Perhaps most important of all, with his dramatic Game 4 heroics, he silenced the bevy of critics who have been riding him throughout his career as a “fragile” player who shies away from big games.

Grade for Stephen Strasburg: A+

Gio Gonzalez

Gio Gonzalez is the most consistent inconsistent pitcher in baseball. He’s the most overrated underrated pitcher in baseball. The most durable fragile pitcher in baseball. He’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma stuffed inside a jersey that always looks a size too big on his modest “six-foot-nothing with cleats on” frame.

Gonzalez’s entire 2017 season was a paradox in so many ways. He posted his best ERA on the season since 2012, his first year with Washington, at 2.96. He also posted his worst FIP, a stat that is nominally supposed to measure pitching performance “independent” of fielding (although many would argue there is no such thing), as a Nat with 3.93. Historically, in the previous three seasons, Gonzalez underperformed the stat with an ERA that was worse, sometimes significantly worse, than his FIP. This year, his ERA was almost a full run lower.

Who is the real Gio Gonzalez? No one knows for sure. But he certainly turned in outings this year that made us all sit up and take note. He carried a no-hitter at Marlins Park in late July into the ninth inning, a bravura performance on what would have been his friend Jose Fernandez‘s 25th birthday, earning a standing ovation from the road crowd. Again and again, he defied his reputation by not letting a cheap hit or a blown strike call get to him, calmly knuckling down and going to work. Instead of trying to make a fastball that has steadily declined in velocity and now sits around 88-90 mph into something it’s not, he embraced the role of a finesse pitcher and relied heavily on his curveball to keep hitters off-balance and guessing.

But Gonzalez also stumbled down the stretch, dropping out of potential CYA consideration with a 5.47 ERA across five regular-season starts in September and October before a truly miserable 6.75 ERA in just eight postseason innings hamstrung the Nats, who at one point led 4–1 in Game 5 before Gonzalez gave up two runs in the third inning with poor pitching. He appeared at times, especially in a peaky performance in the last game of the regular season, to have lost the cool on the mound that had served him well earlier in the season. The baseball season is long, and Gonzalez has built a reputation as someone who plays the entire thing, start to finish. It could be the weight of all those days, weeks, and months finally crushed him by the end. The Nats will certainly hope to see the earlier Gio Gonzalez return in 2018, his last year of team control.

Grade for Gio Gonzalez: B+

Tanner Roark

Hoo, boy. This really wasn’t Tanner Roark’s year. Coming off a season in which he bounced back dramatically from a forgettable 2015 campaign and received a couple CYA votes, Roark turned in the worst season of his career to date in 2017 and was one of just two players on Dusty Baker’s NLDS roster whom the manager chose not to use at all during the five-game set against the Chicago Cubs. His 4.67 ERA and 1.34 WHIP aren’t unduly awful, but nor are they good numbers. Most disappointingly, Roark cratered from a 5.5 rWAR last year to a 1.3 rWAR this year. Sometimes the numbers WAR calculators come up with feel “off” in one direction or another. That isn’t the case here.

There really isn’t too much else to say about Roark. Along with Gonzalez, he was one of just two starting pitchers who stayed healthy and wore the curly W all year, but he often struggled to get deep into starts, and the trademark movement on his two-seam fastball would vanish for long stretches at a time. In short, he pitched like a fifth starter this year. The Nats will likely keep him at the bottom of their rotation next year and simply hope that, with 2018 being another even year, he’ll bounce back again.

Grade for Tanner Roark: C

Joe Ross

It’s tempting to give young Joe Ross an “incomplete” for the season, but lest we forget, he did pitch through the entire first half before the season-ending elbow injury that required him to undergo “Tommy John” surgery. What we saw from Ross was generally unremarkable: He posted a 5.01 ERA in the major leagues across 13 starts, plus five more for the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs with similar results. At times, he appeared to be pitching without his typical sinking action and velocity on the fastball, which may have been warning signs of a UCL tear. It’s certainly fair to say that Ross wasn’t the same pitcher after returning from a lengthy DL stint in 2016 and continued to not be the same pitcher in the first half of 2017 that we saw in his first year and a half with the Nats.

Aside from needing Tommy John, the most striking thing about Ross’ campaign was the prodigious amount of run support he received, as the Nats averaged more than 10 runs across his 13 starts. Call him a good luck charm. It probably doesn’t say anything about his contributions as a player this season, though.

Grade for Joe Ross: D+

Jeremy Guthrie

Strange as it seems to recall, Ross didn’t actually start the year as the Nats’ fifth starter, as the team chose to give non-roster invitee and former World Series champion pitcher Jeremy Guthrie the first crack at assuming the role. Guthrie ended up contributing just ⅔ of a ghastly first inning to the Nats’ 2017 campaign, putting them in a 10–0 hole right out of the gate against the Philadelphia Phillies. He was released the next day and announced his retirement from baseball weeks later, a rough end to a long and successful pitching career.

Grade for Jeremy Guthrie: F-

Edwin Jackson

More successful than Guthrie in filling the role of fifth starter for the Nats this year in the absence of Ross was Edwin Jackson, an old friend from 2012 re-signed midway through the 2017 season after he was released by the Baltimore Orioles up the road. Jackson seemed inspired by his return to the Nationals organization as he trampled the competition at Triple-A before being called up to replace Ross in the rotation after the All-Star Break.

While Jackson’s final 5.07 ERA and 1.41 WHIP across 13 starts as a Nat this year don’t say anything too good, they belie his true contributions. Jackson was actually a 2.94 ERA pitcher in July and August, when the Nats needed him most, before the wheels fell off in September. By then, rosters had expanded and the Nats didn’t need long to handily clinch a second straight division win. Jackson’s late-season woes didn’t do anything good for the back of his baseball card or his chances of getting a major league deal next season, but they didn’t really hurt his team, either. He did his job. That’s more than we can say for some.

Grade for Edwin Jackson: B

A.J. Cole

When you think of a Nats pitching prospect who just hasn’t reached the ceiling everyone projected for him, you think of…OK, well, you can think of a lot of them. There was Taylor Jordan, released last year after undergoing his second Tommy John surgery at age 27. There was Sammy Solis, ultimately converted to a middle relief role in 2015 after injuries limited his development as a starter. There was Lucas Giolito, fenced to the Chicago White Sox last winter as part of a deal for Adam Eaton after he showed up in the majors with his reported high-90s fastball MIA and a 12-6 curveball so easy to lay off of he might as well have shouted “I’m gonna throw the hook!” every time he used it (Giolito actually did quite well for himself in major league action after being called up late in the 2017 season, although he still can’t strike anyone out). There was Reynaldo Lopez, who did show up with that blazing fastball and strikeout stuff, only he gave his catcher a workout and the backstop a few new dents as he did a great Nuke LaLoosh impression out there (he accompanied his buddy Giolito to the White Sox organization).

And then there’s A.J. Cole, who finally — finally — enjoyed something of a breakout year in 2017. He wasn’t stupendous, with a 5.20 FIP and 1.50 WHIP suggesting he certainly was the beneficiary of some good luck, but his 3.81 ERA over 52 innings was very respectable. Crucially, too, he showed he could be effective in the long relief role where the Nats will likely employ him next year, as he is out of options following this season. While he only pitched 7⅔ innings in relief across three games, he limited walks and hits with a 1.17 WHIP while keeping that ERA down at 3.52. It’s too small of a sample size, statistically, to draw many conclusions — but importantly, despite not having relieved since 2015, he looked comfortable in the role.

Cole’s contributions came too late to be particularly meaningful to the Nats’ 2017 season, and he was left off the NLDS roster in something of a surprise move as he finished very well down the stretch and question marks surrounded the ability of Strasburg, Scherzer, and Gonzalez to get deep into games (Strasburg because of his historical fragility, Scherzer because of his recent leg issues, and Gonzalez because he’s the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character made flesh). There’s been some chatter among beat reporters that the Nats will seriously consider Cole as their fifth starter next season, but his future appears more clear in a relief role. Time will tell whether some promising numbers from this season will augur a successful major league career in either role for Cole, heading into his age-26 season.

Grade for A.J. Cole: B-

Jacob Turner

Jacob Turner’s stint in Washington may best be remembered for briefly forcing MASN to begin displaying shortstop Trea Turner‘s name on its defensive alignment charts as “T. Turner,” to distinguish him from the lanky swingman. Although just 26, J. Turner has already bounced around the league several times, including a stint with the Miami Marlins. At every stop along the way, Turner has enticed, baffled, and ultimately disappointed, as he has shown flashes of what made him a ninth overall draft pick out of high school in 2009, as well as demonstrated why no organization has held onto him for too long.

It’s not terribly hard to summarize Turner’s contributions, which occurred entirely in the first half of the season before he was outrighted from the roster (in a strange move, he was brought back up for a day later in July but outrighted again, this time for good, before getting into a game). After making his first appearance with the Nats in April, a start at hitter-friendly Coors Field in which he was left in long enough to give up a lead, he made a shaky relief appearance a few days later before seeming to figure things out. Heading into what would be his second and last start as a Nat during the season on May 17, on just two days’ rest after throwing 30 pitches on back-to-back days in relief, Turner had a 3.31 ERA and seemed to have carved out a useful niche in a bullpen that was far more bad than good. Everything went downhill from there, as he threw 89 more pitches and took the loss on May 17, and then slumped to a 5.08 ERA before he was designated for assignment on July 1.

Ultimately, Turner was exactly a replacement-level player for the Nats in 2017, according to Baseball-Reference. Whether it was through misuse from which he never quite recovered or simply the same sort of regression to the mean that had plagued him everywhere else he had played, Turner could not sustain a fairly promising start to his time in the curly W, and he was a non-factor down the stretch, eating innings for the hapless Syracuse Chiefs until the end of their season.

Grade for Jacob Turner: C-

Erick Fedde

Top Nats pitching prospect Erick Fedde followed in the footsteps of other top Nats pitching prospects before him this season as he came up, showed some promise, but ultimately didn’t achieve very good results. Perhaps rushed to the majors following injuries to Joe Ross and Stephen Strasburg and ill-advisedly pressed into an experimental relief role in the minor leagues that was abandoned just weeks before his major league debut, Fedde ended up making just three starts for the Nats and posting a bad 9.39 ERA and 2.15 WHIP before a decline in velocity, command, and movement unnervingly reminiscent of what happened to Ross before his Tommy John surgery prompted the Nats to shut him down for the year. Officially, the shutdown was precautionary and his injury was diagnosed as a forearm flexor strain. We will have to hope that is indeed the case and that Fedde, who has already undergone one Tommy John operation, will come back stronger in his age-25 season.

If Fedde is healthy, he has a chance at making the team out of spring training, maybe even as their fifth starter if the Nats surprise the baseball world and don’t end up adding another rotation piece over the winter. But even if he is fit as a fiddle and looks sharp in spring training, the Nats could decide he needs more seasoning and give him more time at Triple-A Syracuse before bringing him up for another go-’round.

Grade for Erick Fedde: D-

Matt Grace

The soft-tossing southpaw Matt Grace was effectively left for dead after a late-May relief appearance at Great American Ball Park in 2015 in which he allowed four earned runs without recording an out. But this season, Grace finally got a second chance, and he showed that he might be able to carve out a role for himself in the major leagues.

With a 4.32 ERA on the season (4.73 as a reliever) and a 1.36 WHIP over 50 innings, Grace didn’t exactly dominate. But he impressed with his willingness to pitch in whatever role he was needed, including filling in for a weekend in his personal house of horrors in Cincinnati as the team’s de facto closer (prior to the acquisition of Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from the Oakland Athletics) and even making a spot start against the San Diego Padres in which he managed to pitch into the fifth inning and allowed no earned runs.

The Nats made good use of Grace’s flexibility, but unsurprisingly, the numbers really suggest he might have a flashier statline if he were used exclusively to get left-handed hitters out. They posted just a .235/.550 line against him this season in 92 plate appearances. While there’s no guarantee that the out-of-options Grace will be in the Nats’ bullpen next season, he showed enough this season that he could find a job somewhere, even if it’s not in Washington, which is not too shabby for a soon-to-be-29-year-old who looked two years ago like he had blown his chances of ever sticking in the bigs.

Grade for Matt Grace: C+

Matt Albers

It’s safe to say no one expected Matt Albers to be such a huge part of the Nats’ season. One of many, many pitchers invited to show the Nats brass what they had in spring training this year, Albers was coming off a dire 6.31 ERA campaign on Chicago’s Southside and looked to be in competition for a spot as the long man in the bullpen. He didn’t get it. But after he reported to Triple-A Syracuse, the Nats called on Jeremy Guthrie to make a start in early April, and…well, that wasn’t great. The Nats decided to give Albers, their only pitcher who had been unscored upon in Grapefruit League action, a shot.

The Nats got a great contribution in 2016 out of another non-roster invitee who became a bullpen stalwart, the veteran Matt Belisle. Albers somehow improved on what Belisle did. He led the team’s bullpen with a 2.5 rWAR (an outstanding sum for a reliever, especially a non-closer), posted a staggeringly low 1.62 ERA and 0.85 WHIP, struck out more than a batter per inning, and stayed healthy all year, firing 61 innings during the regular season and then turning in two scoreless relief appearances in the NLDS. With wicked movement on his two-seamer, a pitch that sat in the low 90s but which he could throw above 95 mph when needed, Albers looked like every bit a relief ace, and for the first half of the season, he was one of the sole bright spots in a bullpen that ranked as the worst in the National League. It seems like a safe bet he won’t need to settle for a minor league deal this winter.

Grade for Matt Albers: A+

Blake Treinen

Ah, Blake Treinen. The Nats have established a little cottage industry of churning out promising but ultimately disappointing relief pitchers, and Treinen was no exception to the rule. After seeming to finally have it all figured out in 2016, the right-hander with the high-90s bowling-ball sinker once again fell apart in the first half of 2017, a frustrating end to his frustrating tenure with the Nats that culminated in him being part of the package sent to Oakland for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson.

Treinen actually started the year as the Nats’ closer, a job that would in title be occupied by three other men over the course of the season (and in practice by perhaps six), but he was demoted after just a couple weeks after thudding to a 7.11 ERA in his first eight appearances. He never again seemed to find a groove, as just as he was beginning to appear a little more comfortable in a more familiar setup role in late June, acting manager Chris Speier decided to give him another shot closing a game at Wrigley Field and he blew it again, the day before his 29th birthday. Treinen finished with a 5.73 ERA as a Nat this season before seeming to settle in as an Athletic, pitching to a 2.13 ERA with his new organization and racking up 13 saves. Maybe he just needed a change of scenery.

Grade for Blake Treinen: D

Shawn Kelley

Treinen’s successor as the titular closer for the Nats this year was the veteran Shawn Kelley. Kelley received the role not because he was pitching particularly well, but because he had pitched well last year and had experience as an eighth-inning reliever. Why not give him a shot as closer?

Well, Kelley went on to have an absolute nightmare of a season, allowing a shocking 12 home runs in just 26 innings as he endured no fewer than three DL stints, including a season-ending elbow injury that the Nats have still divulged little information about (officially, it was described as “bone chips”). Kelley recorded just four saves on the season, one of which came after he inherited a bases-loaded jam and promptly surrendered a grand slam, and he finished with a horrific 7.27 ERA that was by far the worst mark in his major league career.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong for Kelley this season. The 33-year-old repeatedly insisted to reporters that he felt fine and that he didn’t think he was throwing bad pitches. Hitters disagreed, teeing off on him and his 1.54 WHIP with a .266/.963 average against that was even worse from the right side of the plate. It’s unclear whether Kelley will be able to pitch next year — he’s under contract for the 2018 season — but the Nats will have to be hoping that if he does return, this season was some sort of dramatic aberration.

Grade for Shawn Kelley: F

Koda Glover

Young Koda Glover is another pitcher it’s tempting to grade as an “incomplete”. But the fact is that Glover, with a bewildering mixture of prodigious talent and unfathomable recklessness, showed us enough to give him a real grade. The third and penultimate Nat promoted to the closer’s role this season, Glover once again started out with such promise, and once again, by the end of his all-too-brief tenure, we were left scratching our heads.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Koda Glover can throw a 96 mph slider, and it is perhaps the filthiest pitch ever seen on a baseball diamond. During that one glorious week at the end of May in which he recorded four saves in five days, he had the entire baseball world’s attention. This kid can pitch. Unfortunately, whether from the strain of throwing such a devastating pitch — maybe, just maybe, sliders aren’t meant to be thrown that hard — or just plain dumb luck, Glover got hurt for the second time in the season. And then he tried to pitch through it. It did not go well, as he was pummeled for five earned runs in a June 4 game in Oakland before Kelley relieved him. His ERA more than doubled from 2.08 to 4.58. After looking like the next great young closer in the making, Glover looked more like Icarus flying too close to the sun. One blown save later and Glover’s season ended with a 5.12 ERA.

For the second straight year, Glover had hurt himself and neglected to tell the team, finally admitting after that June 10 loss that he had injured his back — he hurt it while showering that morning, he claimed — and tried to pitch through it. He later amended that story, admitting he had in fact started experiencing severe shoulder pain that turned out to be an inflamed rotator cuff in late May and tried to pitch through that, which he said led to the ostensible showering mishap. Glover tried hard to rehab and get back in time for the playoffs, but after he hurt himself again in early September, the Nats finally shut him down altogether.

Glover may well end up being a factor for the Nats in 2018 and beyond. His arsenal and mound presence suggest he has what it takes to close. The twofold test will be: Can he stay healthy? And is he smart, selfless, and responsible enough to tell his coaches when he’s not? The history of baseball is littered with talented players who did stupid things and saw their careers end because of it. It’d be a shame if Glover ended up as one of them.

Grade for Koda Glover: C-

“The Firm” by Marlene Koenig for TalkNats

Sean Doolittle

Thank goodness for Sean Doolittle. Acquired as part of a deal that sent Treinen and two prospects to Oakland, Doolittle arrived as a setup man and quickly, in the absence of anyone better suited to the job, became Dusty Baker’s go-to closer. Despite rarely throwing anything but a fastball — his changeup, sometimes described as a splitter, didn’t even come out of his hand until his third or fourth appearance as a National — Doolittle became the shutdown closer the Nats had craved throughout the first half of the season, converting 22 out of 23 save opportunities with Washington, including one in the NLDS, the first postseason save of his career.

What might be most impressive about Doolittle is that he started off shaky, allowing a run and some hard-hit balls in his first appearance for the Nats at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, but vowed after that game that he would be better going forward — and he was. Doolittle finished the season with a 2.40 ERA and 1.000 WHIP as a Nat; while he wasn’t quite as effective at limiting walks and hits as he was as an Athletic, he focused less on striking every batter out and more on preventing runs.

Like Albers, Doolittle’s steady performance and quirky character made him an instant fan favorite in Washington, where he now jogs out of the bullpen and faces down batters to chants of “Doooooooooooooo” from the home faithful. He’s under contract through 2019, with a vesting mutual option for 2020, so fans can look forward to “Dooooooooooooooo” for a long time to come.

Grade for Sean Doolittle: A

Ryan Madson

Accompanying Doolittle to Washington in July was 36-year-old Ryan Madson. Looking for all the world like an older, calmer, more experienced version of Blake Treinen, Madson (who turned 37 in August) quickly solidified the eighth inning, forming a bridge to Doolittle. Like Doolittle, he was excellent in Oakland but even better in D.C., providing the Nats with a brilliant 1.37 ERA over 19⅔ innings in the regular season; victimized by poor defense behind him, he gave up one earned run in four postseason innings but did not factor into a decision, with gutsy work in Games 4 and 5 to keep the Nats afloat.

Madson did not make an appearance in the majors in 2012 through 2014, a shade of two-time former Nat Sean Burnett, who also made a comeback after significant time away due to injuries. After undergoing Tommy John surgery, Madson changed his pitching arsenal somewhat, but despite being an older pitcher with a surgically repaired elbow, he can still throw a fastball with excellent movement in the upper 90s, similar to his Nats predecessor Treinen, pairing it with an effective curveball-changeup mix to keep hitters off-balance. Despite a short DL stint for what was alternately described as a finger or forearm issue, Madson still provided the Nats a full win above replacement, nearly matching Doolittle’s contributions. He remains under contract for another season, after which he could retire with about $40 million in career earnings or seek a new contract in his age-39 season.

Grade for Ryan Madson: A

Brandon Kintzler

Rounding out what became affectionately known as “the Firm” (shorthand for “the Law Firm of Kintzler, Madson & Doolittle”), Brandon Kintzler joined the Nats in a trade with the Minnesota Twins. Minnesota’s closer, Kintzler fit into the Nats’ bullpen as their primary seventh-inning setup man, although he was occasionally called upon to pitch earlier or later in games as well and was sometimes paired with left-handers Sammy Solis and Oliver Perez for double-barrel action. (The Twins, who made a surprising run to the American League Wildcard Game despite trading their closer, replaced him in the role with old friend Matt Belisle, who was brilliant for them down the stretch.)

Kintzler is a good pitcher. He’s less dominant than fellow “partners” Doolittle and Madson and didn’t have as stellar a season as Albers, but his contributions shouldn’t be overlooked. Kintzler pitched to a 3.46 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP in 26 innings as a Nat during the regular season; Baseball-Reference has him pegged for 0.6 WAR, a respectable figure for someone who only had two months wearing a curly W in the season.

The playoffs were a bit rougher on Kintzler who was victimized by poor defense. He took the loss in Game 3 after Perez inherited his baserunner who scored on a bloop that should have been caught as it landed between Jayson Werth, Michael A. Taylor, and Trea Turner and technically gave up another earned run in Game 5 when Jayson Werth supposedly “lost” a ball in the lights that should have been the 3rd out. Bad luck indeed and that is what happens sometimes when balls are put in play and especially in this post-season in Jayson Werth’s direction.

Although Kintzler closed for the Twins and was an All-Star, he was ineffective two of the three times Dusty Baker called upon him to close for the Nats. He doesn’t have a traditional closer’s arsenal, generally relying on groundballs and weak flyballs to get outs; he struck out just 12 batters as a Nat during August and September. For those reasons, although he is a free agent this winter, Kintzler might not be signed as a closer, but with so many teams looking for closer experience there is always a chance. He should get a multi-year deal and get paid well. Will it be from the Nats? It remains to be seen…

Grade for Brandon Kintzler: B

Oliver Perez

The veteran Oliver Perez had a miserable 2016 campaign, in the first of two years he was signed as a National. His second year went better than his first, but not by a whole lot. Once an enigmatic young starting pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates and later the New York Mets (one of the best starters in the league in 2004, he slumped badly until a 15-win season in 2007, and then slumped again before reemerging as a reliever in 2012), the crafty 36-year-old southpaw will still show some of his old brilliance in flashes, but inconsistency is his calling card. He turned in a 4.64 ERA as a Nat this year with a 1.33 WHIP, pitching just 33 innings (plus one more in the NLDS) despite being healthy the entire season; as in 2016, he was valued just slightly above replacement level by Baseball-Reference.

There’s not a lot to say about Perez, who is clearly approaching the end of a long, strange career that never quite lived up to his initial promise. He is unlikely to return to the Nats next year and may have to settle for a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training, although demand in the pitching market is often hard to predict. His numbers against lefties were consistently better than his numbers against righties, but Baker used him nearly as often to pitch to righties as lefties, or else his numbers might have been better on the whole.

Grade for Oliver Perez: C

Joe Blanton

Say it ain’t so, Joe. The Nats added veteran right-hander Joe Blanton after seeing far too much of him in the 2016 NLDS. Unfortunately, Blanton was a dud in the curly W, pitching 44⅓ innings of 5.68 ERA, 1.49 WHIP ball. Like Perez, a below-average starter for most of his career (albeit one who was consistently mediocre rather than seesawing between brilliance and bankruptcy), Blanton had seemed to reinvent himself in 2015 and 2016 as a setup man. But as a Nat, especially in the early going, Blanton struggled mightily to keep the ball in the yard and was eminently hittable, allowing more than a hit per inning on average.

Blanton’s struggles were such that Baker was no longer using him in a setup role by the time Madson and Doolittle and later Kintzler were added to reshape the bullpen, and he was left off the 2017 NLDS roster altogether. He will head into his age-37 season a free agent, having never lived up to the promise of the one-year deal he signed with Washington during spring training this year. (In fact, one could argue he had a negative effect beyond the -0.2 rWAR he was worth, as catching prospect Spencer Kieboom was bumped from the roster to make room for Blanton in February; the Nats then saw their rostered catchers struggle tremendously throughout the season, while Kieboom finally broke out with a .275/.723 line and zero errors for the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs.)

Grade for Joe Blanton: D

Sammy Solis

Another in a long line of generally frustrating homegrown pitchers for the Nats, Solis failed to replicate a very strong 2016 campaign, which came with a few warning signs in his peripherals that proved prescient. Abnormally gifted at preventing the long ball in 2016 (he allowed only one in 45⅔ innings across the 2016 season and postseason), Solis backslid in 2017 by letting up four in 27 total innings while seeing a general uptick in his hard contact allowed. He finished with a 5.88 ERA in the regular season and then pitched poorly in the postseason, cashing in an inherited run for a blown save in Game 3 and letting up a run of his own in Game 5.

Very unusually, Solis was eligible to be optioned to the minor leagues this year despite having his option used in three prior seasons, because he had lost so much time to injury earlier in his minor league career. The Nats took advantage of this obscure rule, moving him between Washington and Syracuse when needed. He will finally be out of options in 2018, so he will have to either make the team out of spring training or face being designated for assignment or traded.

Grade for Sammy Solis: C-

Enny Romero

While Enny Romero wasn’t a non-roster invitee to spring training this year, he might as well have been one. Out of options heading into his age-26 season, Romero was traded to Washington by the Tampa Bay Rays for a minor prospect but promptly impressed Nats brass with a strong showing in spring training. Gifted with a fastball that can clear 100 mph, as well as a cutter about 10 mph slower, Romero gears his approach as a pitcher mostly toward overpowering and striking out batters.

The knock on Romero has always been his lack of command. But Romero actually took a strong step forward this season, walking fewer batters than he had in 2016 despite pitching 10 more innings. All told, he contributed 55⅔ innings in relief and worked to a respectable 3.56 ERA, although (as with A.J. Cole, his counterpart in breaking out of the mold this year) his 1.40 WHIP wasn’t as sparkling. But while Romero earned Dusty Baker’s trust enough to be used in the eighth and even occasionally the ninth inning during the first half, he saw significantly less action in the second half, in part due to a back injury that sidelined him for a few weeks; only 16 of his innings came after the All-Star Break. He was included on the 2017 NLDS roster but was one of just two players, along with Tanner Roark, who was not used at all in the series. Romero will again contend for a chance to make the team out of spring training next year; his spot is not guaranteed, although his solid-enough overall numbers this season might give him an edge.

Grade for Enny Romero: B-

Trevor Gott

Trevor Gott is a pitcher who appeared for the Washington Nationals in 2017.

Seriously, what else do you want me to say? Gott was called up twice and appeared in four total games, pitching three innings in total and giving up 10 earned runs. There’s an asterisk that goes here: half of those runs were given up in a bizarre 52-pitch outing less than 24 hours after his previous relief appearance, with Baker explaining after the game that he decided to use Gott as a sacrificial lamb after an ineffective start by Roark. Gott was never quite the same afterward, getting bombed for five earned runs without retiring a batter after he was called up again about a month later and being used just occasionally at Triple-A Syracuse, where he logged just 7⅔ more innings over the next month and a half before undergoing season-ending surgery.

Grade for Trevor Gott: F

Austin L. Adams

It’s hard to know what to make of Austin L. Adams. His stuff looks awesome, including a crazy-moving fastball and a wipeout slider, until you realize he’s put himself in a three-ball count without ever tempting the batter (perhaps as bewildered as the spectators by what’s flying out of his hand) to swing. Adams earned the dubious distinction of officially having an ERA of infinity after coming up along with Gott in July and having a zero-inning outing in the same game he did before being sent back down to the minors until rosters expanded in September. But it turned out he was OK, finishing the season with just five innings pitched but a not-so-bad 3.60 ERA as a major-leaguer. Granted, the back of his baseball card also sports a 2.40 WHIP, but a kid’s got to start somewhere.

Grade for Austin Adams: incomplete (previously C-)

Next up…

We’ll take a look at grading position players, from the superstars like Anthony Rendon to the bet-you-didn’t-remember-hims like Grant Green, in another installment of this series.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Make your case in the comments…

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