2019 preview – The #Nats bullpen

Photo by Marlene Koenig for Talknats

Narratives are always ongoing in sports, and in time an opinion can become gospel. Take for example the tale that general manager Mike Rizzo is really bad at constructing bullpens. That’s pretty much as solid as the US Constitution – I’ve fallen for that one myself. The truth is as usual it is somewhere in the middle. Let’s examine this a little. Everyone agrees that Rizzo never converts failed starters to the pen, hello Craig Stammen. Rizzo doesn’t find gems on other teams, well then I guess Sean Burnett, Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero never happened — oh, there’s also one Mr. Tyler Clippard. Rizzo also drafted Drew Storen who for all his faults was a capable closer for several years.

Rizzo isn’t perfect as evidenced by several expensive panic moves which includes Rafael Soriano, Jonathan Paplebon, Mark Melancon, Sean Doolittle. All of these moves have been discussed ad nauseum but suffice it to say they were all costly in money and/or prospects. Building a strong bullpen is really complicated to build, and to add one more point to Rizzo’s resumé; he loves flame throwers with poor command. We have yet to fix one when you look at the team history that began with the legend of Henry Rodriguez. Command is very elusive and most pitchers who don’t have it — never get it. Pitchers with stuff like Jimmy Cordero who have command are named Max Scherzer.

2018’s bullpen was not good from the get-go. Between Brandon Kintzler returning to expected levels, Ryan Madson and Sammy Solis being horribly misused and the departure of the ever solid Matt Albers the beginning of this year looked a lot like the beginning of last year with the exception of the excellent Sean Doolittle. Yet sometimes mid-year with the surprise revelation of Justin Miller and the acquisition of Kelvin Herrera (plus the return to form of Shawn Kelley) suddenly the ‘pen looked as steady as it had for several seasons. That didn’t last very long. Due to the collapse of the starting rotation in June and the injuries to Herrera, Doolittle and Madson, the team fell badly and for many convoluted reasons Mike Rizzo took a sledgehammer to the bullpen and jettisoned Kintzler and Kelley and the return of the “blown save” was in full form.

Something interesting happened in the past 2 weeks. The hodge podge collection of rookies and veterans started getting hitters out and dismissing high lev situations regularly. Koda Glover is coming back strong, Miller has been ok, Wander Suero has been good, Matt Grace has been good, Greg Holland has been terrific, and Tim Collins and Cordero have had their moments, and Sean Doolittle has returned from the disabled list.

So, what about 2019?

Looking forward to next season, I think we all have to understand that the team needs to have several low cost, home grown relievers on the roster in order to get under the salary cap while giving Rizzo trade-deadline spending flexibility. It’s not great budget management to allocate huge amounts on middle relievers, and to that end, I think we can pencil Glover, Grace, Suero and possibly Miller into next year’s team to go along with Sean Doolittle. That’s 5 slots (and I think Suero, Grace and Miller have all shown they pitch multiple innings if needed). This leaves 2 slots in my estimation, you need to replace Ryan Madson with a solid set-up guy and you’d like to have a really good LOOGY. Is Holland the set-up guy? How do you know what you will get from him next year? The Holland of K.C. and the 1st half of last year with Colorado? Or the Holland of the 2nd half last year and the Holland of the St.Louis Cardinals? I think he’s worth a gamble but not at full retail prices. I’d do a $5 mil deal with him if possible.

Finally, what about Austen Williams and Kyle McGowin? The early returns haven’t been great but it hasn’t really been a fair try out. I’d say long shots for now. How about Jefry Rodriguez as the long-man? He also (like Jimmy Cordero) has great stuff and there are days when his command is good but still a work in progress. For those who think his game plays in the pen I say this that without command it doesn’t work in the rotation or in the pen and with command the better utilization is in the rotation.

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