An enduring mystery of baseball is the churn of relief pitchers. Like a sock that vanishes somewhere between the washer and the dryer, the God-given talent and ability of a quality reliever can seemingly dry up in between one season and the next. In a sport marked by the consistency of its stars, relievers are a remarkable volatile quantity.
All of that leads into the question we ask every spring: Who is going to be in the Washington Nationals’ bullpen on Opening Day?
Some of the names we know. Sean Doolittle heads into his third season handling the ninth for the Nats, after he was acquired midway through the 2017 season. His primary setup man will be Trevor Rosenthal, signed after a year off recovering from “Tommy John” surgery to replace a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Spelling both those guys and providing another high-leverage arm in the middle to late innings, there’s Kyle Barraclough, for whom the Nats traded some international bonus money to the Miami Marlins last October. Homegrown Nats southpaw Matt Grace rounds out that “core four”, likely pitching in a number of roles, from long relief to lefty matchup to setup, as he has in the past.
For the rest, we have to read tea leaves.
The Nats agreed to terms with arbitration-eligible left-hander Sammy Solís on a new contract after the 2018 season. But management evidently wasn’t satisfied with what they were seeing from Solís this spring, as they opted to release him Saturday and pay only one-sixth of his agreed-upon salary, freeing up a bit of payroll space and clearing a spot on the 40-man roster. That move takes Solís out of the mix.
Still rostered but likely out of contention as well is Koda Glover. Once regarded as one of the Nats’ most promising farmhands, Glover now has his name accompanied in every story that mentions him with “once considered Washington’s closer of the future”, or some variation thereof. Glover has been unable to stay healthy, tearing his hip labrum weeks after he was first called up in 2016, injuring his shoulder and back weeks after being named the team’s official closer in 2017, and being shut down early in spring training with an injury in 2018 before returning late in the season. Once again, Glover is hurt, being lifted one out into his first appearance of the spring with an elbow issue. There’s been no timetable for his return; as far as we know, he hasn’t been cleared to throw yet.
The Nats are more sanguine about the prospects of Justin Miller. Miller signed a minor league deal with Washington last offseason that didn’t include an invitation to major league spring training, but he found himself in The Show early in the year after dominating at Triple-A Syracuse. With the Nats, Miller had his ups and downs. He carried over his sterling performance from the minor leagues, not giving up a run until his ninth appearance of the year; in one memorable early outing, he gave the shorthanded Nats three no-hit innings in relief before Max Scherzer and Wilmer Difo teamed up to win it in extra innings. But as the season went on, Miller wore down, and he posted an ERA above 4 over the last three months. All the same, Miller pitched in enough spots and got enough key outs that manager Dave Martinez declared that if he’s healthy, he’ll be in the bullpen. The real question is whether he is healthy, as he tried to pitch through a lower back strain earlier this spring and ended up being shut down for a few days with discomfort after the game. He appeared again today against the Houston Astros for an inning and looked fine; we’ll see how his body responds.
Justin Miller says he felt good today and had no pain in his one inning of work. He will of course see how he feels in the morning but he is confident the lower-back pain, from a muscle strain, has passed.
— Jesse Dougherty (@dougherty_jesse) March 10, 2019
Martinez is a big fan of another right-hander who contributed last year, Wander Suero. The Dominican was on track to post an ERA below 3 in his rookie season until a rough outing against the New York Mets in late September. His bread-and-butter pitch is a cutter that he uses as his primary fastball, but his curveball didn’t find much success last season, as although he threw it less than 20 percent of the time, 75 percent of the home runs he allowed came off it. This spring, Suero has reportedly been experimenting with a two-seam fastball that could work as a mirror image of his cutter. We hope he’s just “working on things”, because his spring stats haven’t been good. All the same, if Martinez has his way, he seems likely to make the team. If Suero doesn’t make the team, he still has three minor league options remaining, which does give the Nats some flexibility in considering what to do with him.
Another reliever whom Martinez has been raving about recently is non-roster invitee Vidal Nuño. The crafty left-handed veteran, 32 in July, turned in an outstanding sub-2 ERA season with the Tampa Bay Rays but had to settle for a minor league deal this winter. The Nats’ agreement with Nuño reportedly provides for him to opt out at the end of spring training if he isn’t added to the roster, and Martinez hinted that Nuño may well make the team, telling reporters Saturday, “I really like what I see so far.” It can’t hurt Nuño’s chances that Solís was given the boot. The Nats may want to carry a third lefty, since Doolittle isn’t available for matchups and Grace may be more valuable in other game situations. He pitched a scoreless inning today as well.
Immediate hunch on Nationals’ bullpen, though this is something we’ll keep tracking in the coming weeks: Sammy Solis release opened up a spot for Vidal Nuno to lose. Dave Martinez likes what he has seen and Nuno can face lefties and provide multi-inning appearances.
— Jesse Dougherty (@dougherty_jesse) March 9, 2019
Doolittle, Rosenthal, Barraclough, Grace, Miller, Suero, and Nuño would make seven, and health permitting, that looks like the likely Opening Day bullpen at this point. But a few other possibilities are worth watching:
Joe Ross is nominally Washington’s #6 starter, the first man up in case of an injury to the major league rotation. But Ross is expected to be on a strict innings limit this season after returning late last year from 2017 Tommy John surgery. While Martinez has publicly suggested he would like to see Ross stay in the minor leagues if he doesn’t make the major league rotation out of spring training, some eyebrows went up when Ross only went one inning in his most recent game. Ross has always had the kind of profile that more suggests a reliever than a starter, with a sinker/slider combo that lacks a consistently effective third pitch, chronic durability issues, pronounced platoon splits, and difficulty throughout his major league career in limiting baserunners past the first time through the order. But the Nats’ starting depth is far from ideal, and Ross was effective as the team’s fifth starter back in 2016 before a second-half injury limited his playing time, velocity, and stamina even after he returned that September. That was a long time ago, obviously, but it’s a better résumé than the likes of Erick Fedde, Kyle McGowin, Austin Voth, and Paolo Espino can offer.
Henderson Alvarez — see “Ross, Joe”. Unlike Ross, Alvarez shouldn’t be on an innings limit after pitching a full season last year for Triple-A Quintana Roo in the Mexican League. But also unlike Ross, Alvarez is on a non-roster invitation to spring training, and many of those deals include opt-outs that could see the Nats lose Alvarez to free agency. Like Ross, Alvarez has appeared in single-inning relief (a few times, actually) this spring. And like Ross, Alvarez hasn’t been an effective major league starter in a while, thanks in large part to a series of injuries that derailed a once-promising career with the Toronto Blue Jays and Miami Marlins. The easy betting here is that Alvarez starts the season with Triple-A Fresno and serves as rotation depth, but given his usage this spring and the possible parameters of his minor league contract, it’s possible that the Nats try him out in the bullpen instead.
Austen Williams is having a very good spring so far. Williams was excellent in the minor leagues after shifting to a relief role last year, but given a cup of coffee in the majors in September, he struggled, flashing a high-90s fastball with good movement and location but hanging a few breaking balls that got clobbered. Williams didn’t allow a home run in the minors all year, but in 9⅔ innings at the major league level, he gave up five. He’s still on the 40-man roster and looks likely to start the year in the minors, but he’s given up just one hit in four innings this spring and has pitched out of some big spots already. It’d still figure as a surprise for him to make the team over someone like Suero or Miller, but he’s in an interesting place, as he could play himself into a “first man up” spot if there’s an injury.
Someone else? The Nats might not be done shopping, with rumors tying them to six-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel about a week ago. Kimbrel may be too rich for the Nats’ blood, as he’s reportedly demanding a contract close to what Kenley Jansen got to re-sign with the Dodgers after the 2016 season. If Kimbrel does agree to terms, he would almost certainly inherit the ninth inning, freeing up Doolittle for a setup role and matchups against the likes of Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman and Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Judas Iscariot. Alternatively, the Nats might pursue a left-handed reliever now that the Solís experiment has come to an end. There are a few players still looking for jobs who could fit the bill, including Tony Sipp, Jon Niese, and Jorge de la Rosa. A trade isn’t out of the question, either, with Tony Watson and Will Smith of the San Francisco Giants, Tim Mayza of the Toronto Blue Jays, and Blaine Hardy of the Detroit Tigers among those who stand out as proven effective lefties on non-competitive teams.
TalkNats’ own Steve Mears took a look at how left-handed pitchers have done against the Phillies’ star offseason pickup over the past three years. Focusing on relievers against whom Philadelphia’s mercenary captain has had at least 10 plate appearances, here’s what we’ve got (note that some of these appearances may have come when these pitchers were starting):
So, uh, unless the Cleveland Indians are looking to give up their closer before the season starts, not a lot of great proven options out there.
Where does this leave the Nats? Well, history tells us not to discount non-roster invitees’ chances of making the team, either on Opening Day or not long thereafter. And one never knows where the next Justin Miller might come from; a few notable Nats minor league relievers, including Andrew Istler, Jhon Romero, and Jordan Mills, didn’t get invitations to spring training but turned in some impressive numbers last year that could position them for a breakout.
Right now, the safe money is probably on Doolittle, Rosenthal, Barraclough, Grace, Miller, Suero, and Nuño. But nothing is set in stone yet. And relievers are volatile; you never know how many of the men in the bullpen on April 1 will still be there on May 1. You don’t win in baseball with just 25 guys. What the Nats are looking to do is get off on the right foot by taking the best seven guys north, while hoping there are at least a few more guys they keep down on the farm who can do their jobs if pressed.