It’s the bullpen, stupid! Time to sign Craig Kimbrel!

Trevor Rosenthal watches and waits from the bullpen. (Photo for TalkNats by Lynn G)

An ode to James Carville who wrote “It’s the bullpen economy, stupid” as a political strategist, and he is often seen at Nationals Park as a fan of the game. The Ragin’ Cajun might agree that the Nationals problems have all been about the poor bullpen and the early injuries, and some poor roster construction. What advice would he have for general manager Mike Rizzo? Some sage advice would have been that you cannot win a campaign by betting on the wrong people. This all goes back to the roster construction in the off-season, and banking on expensive high-risk high-reward players. In particular, the gamble on Trevor Rosenthal is the type of move that if it goes wrong it has a cascading effect — and it did. 

With a signing like this, you would have the expectations that the team did their due diligence especially when you could be committing $15 million to a player coming off of a Tommy John surgery with no subsequent Major League statistics. From what we know that due diligence was provided from Jay Robertson who was the only Nationals scout attending Rosenthal’s showcase on October 3rd when he threw in front of 40 men armed with radar guns in one hand and charts in the other. 

The entire showcase for Rosenthal was 36-pitches on that warm day in October. It was held at a school, UC Irvine, that agent Scott Boras uses in the Los Angeles area.  The former All-Star closer touched 99 mph on the flashing radar guns with his fastball and high 80s with his slider and changeup. What you did not see was a win probability chart like the one that went from positive to negative on March 30, 2019 when Rosenthal put the first two runners on-base in his debut with the Washington Nationals against the rival New York Mets. In his showcase for scouts, Rosey was not facing live batters, and pitching to the stress of a one-run game situation.

Rosenthal was over 1 ½ years removed from his Tommy John surgery in his Nats debut. He had an ERA of infinity for a total of four games as he never recorded an out. Some of that was due to bad luck, but most of it was due to poor pitching. Teammates like Max Scherzer were encouraging. Others collectively felt the entire bullpen spin out of control. It is like a building with a poorly constructed foundation in a game of Jenga. Eventually it will all come tumbling down, and the Nationals bullpen imploded due to structural integrity issues.

In the off-season, general manager Mike Rizzo could have gone back and signed Greg Holland who was excellent for the Nationals in 2018 with a 0.84 ERA and a 0.894 WHIP which were both excellent indicators of his success. Holland is also a Boras client, but there were dozens of other set-up candidates as well as closers who were available besides Holland and Rosenthal like Craig Kimbrel who Sean Doolittle personally said he would have no problem having in the bullpen. It made so much sense with all of the left-handed sluggers in the NL East that having Doolittle available in the 7th or 8th inning might have been the perfect complement to Kimbrel.

Currently the bullpen’s ERA is 7.23, and the starter’s ERA is 3.67. That is a difference of 3 ½ when the manager hands the ball over to the bullpen. The most troubling number is that 8.68 eighth inning ERA which was that part of the game that set-up man Trevor Rosenthal was supposed to dominate. Dominate would not even be the word because there has been a domino effect as other pitchers were moved to that spot and also failed. It weakens everything a manager plans on when setting up the bullpen for the end of the game.

There is the issue that there has not been one primary 8th inning set-up man. The count is now at 15 different relievers who have been used in the 8th inning. Only Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero and Matt Grace have pitched well enough in the 8th inning for Nats pitchers in “Med Lev” spots, and their sample sizes are small. The underperformers have been Trevor Rosenthal with a .727 OBP in the 8th inning, Tony Sipp .619 OBP, Kyle Barraclough .429, Justin Miller .421, Dan Jennings .400, and Joe Ross .400. You get the idea of how bad that 8th inning has been and the cascading effect of trying 15 different relievers in that spot. It seems almost inconceivable at the 1/3 mark of the season.

The 18 positive WAR players per Fangraphs

These issues seem to go back to failure(s) in personnel. The building of the entire team was suspect in Spring Training, but the positives are there if you look hard enough. There is no shortage of star power on this team. Interpolating and extrapolating the value of players who have missed large chunks of the season shows how costly it has been. Since Trea Turner has returned from the 10-day IL, the team is 6-7 with the trend pointing upwards. It takes more than just Turner to win games, and he is still swinging the bat with nine fingers gripping it. Within those 7 losses that Turner has played in includes two losses to the Cubs, and that four-game sweep by the Mets. The common denominator just keeps pointing back to the bullpen. They have 11 blown saves and 13-losses which is 41% of all the losses.

“We had guys injured, we had guys come back,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We had guys that played that needed to just play games. And now things are starting to click a little bit and they’re starting to play. Our lineup’s got some length now. And we’re starting to extend some innings, which is nice.”

When you look at your team’s problems, why wouldn’t you look to Craig Kimbrel on June 3rd to add to the bullpen? On June 3rd, a team can sign a qualified-offered player with no draft penalties. It seems like that would be money well spent, and if he does not turn the team around you can trade him and others to get under the CBT cap. If it works like it should, the Nationals can use the remaining 106 games to get back into the playoff hunt.


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