The Nationals’ bullpen sucks. We’ve spent two months dancing around it with phrases like “guys are just finding their way right now”, but I’ll say it again: the bullpen sucks. Dusty Baker and I agree, though, that a bonafide closer would put everyone in their place. While the Nationals GM, Mike Rizzo, is targeting so many relievers it’ll make your head spin, the perfect choice is a hard-throwing former closer in the Gateway City.
The Nationals’ starters currently have the second-most innings pitched in baseball, partially because of all the bullpen problems. Their relievers have the fifth-highest FIP in the NL, 4.77, they have the second-lowest WAR of any NL relief corps, and allow the second-most HR/9 in baseball to go along with their 12 blown saves. I highly recommend reading this piece in the Washington Post by Barry Svrluga that details how the bullpen’s performance is affecting the clubhouse. Or you can just look at Bryce Harper after one Monday’s loss (attributed to a blown save):
Nats bullpen breaking Bryce. pic.twitter.com/dcmOmOiGl2— Holden Kushner (@Holdenradio) June 13, 2017
There is much speculation about whom the Nationals are targeting to help shape up their bullpen. The Nats have apparently said that they want to acquire not one, but two relievers before the deadline so that there can be a few different options for the ninth inning.
There’s Kelvin Herrera of Royals, who is not doing too great in the closer role so far this season and will now compete for that spot with Neftalí Feliz. He is currently sitting on a 4.56 FIP (and has given up seven home runs), so I don’t see ownership making that commitment. Oakland’s Ryan Madson pitched 51 innings as closer last year, but was bumped from that role this season.
The Nats failed to sign Mark Melancon in the offseason, but the Giants might now be willing to deal his $60 million contract if they feel they won’t be able to contend next year with a healthier roster. The organization’s familiarity with him would be a plus. Conversely, ownership has already balked on the White Sox’s David Robertson but the organization is still interested. Trevor Rosenthal and Detroit’s Justin Wilson round out the list of candidates.
The Washington bullpen does not strike out a lot of batters and they give up a lot of home runs. They need to acquire someone who does the opposite. FIP is a good indication of a pitcher’s ability regardless of the defense playing behind them, and WHIP shows us about how many baserunners they allow.
Rosenthal has the lowest FIP, has the highest strikeout rate by a hefty margin, and is essentially tied for the fewest homers allowed. His average fastball velocity is 99.1 mph. He also mixes in a hard slider (89 mph) and he’s developed a good changeup that induces a lot of swings and misses. Below, I outline three problems the Nationals currently have and show that Rosenthal is the only reliever who solves all three.
What little October experience the Nationals have is primarily confined to the NLDS, where they have ended their season three times in the past five years. More than a little of that problem can be attributed to their relievers. (See game 5 of the 2012 NLDS and game 2 of the 2014 NLDS.)
Trevor Rosenthal has pitched in the World Series and has been on four postseason teams. He does not lack experience and will not be fazed by the bright lights of October. In fact, five of the six targeted relievers have significant postseason experience (data from Baseball-Reference):
Rosenthal has pitched quite well in October. His strikeouts per nine blow the other contenders away. He is, essentially, tied for the lowest WHIP and has not allowed a home run in twenty-six innings. As far as the postseason is concerned, Rosenthal has proven himself to be reliable, and that’s exactly what the Nationals need.
Cost Control and Perception
The Nationals made a good faith offer to Bryce Harper earlier in the season to avoid arbitration next year. That was step one in their master plan to get him to stay in DC. But he won’t stay if the people at the top do not show a commitment to all facets of the team. How committed are they, really, to making the World Series? Likely quite committed, but the players sound quite disgruntled.
“In the clubhouse, this [bullpen implosion] is viewed as an organizational failure, because that’s what it is.”
So what is ownership comfortable with and what won’t they do? Last year, the Nats sent a hard-throwing future closer, Felipe Rivero, to the Pirates for three months of an elite closer in Mark Melancon. That trade served its purpose, since Melancon pitched brilliantly in Washington, but the team once again bowed out in the NLDS. The ownership group has been loathe to commit to a closer, but that hesitance could be alleviated if they sign someone who isn’t temporary.
Cost control is also a huge priority, and if $60 million for Melancon was too much of a commitment in the offseason, are they desperate enough to pay that price now when there are cheaper relievers available? Rosenthal is under team control through next season, making $6.4 million this year compared to Melancon’s $15 million.
The ownership group vetoed the deals for both Greg Holland and David Robertson in the offseason. Greg Holland, of course, is now the closer for the Colorado Rockies with 25 saves. I, again, turn to the words of Mr. Svrluga:
With the relievers crumbling, the rest of the clubhouse — and possibly even the manager and the coaching staff — can concentrate too much on who’s not here, and why.
The Nats seem to need someone to come in and say a particular pitcher has produced, is reliable, and will continue to do the same in DC. If there is one person who can make the Nationals comfortable, it’s Scott Boras. They are notorious for signing Boras clients. Take a look at his clients currently on the roster and it’s obvious why:
- Max Scherzer
- Bryce Harper
- Jayson Werth
- Stephen Strasburg
- Anthony Rendon
- Matt Wieters
- Brian Goodwin
Pretty well all those guys are producing this year. If the Lerners are on the hunt for a bullpen arm, they are going to need heightened assurance they won’t get burned again like they did with Melancon. That’s an assurance Scott Boras could give them. Only one of the six relievers being discussed is a Boras client, and it’s Trevor Rosenthal.
What would a trade look like?
Given how well Rosenthal has pitched this year and his second year of control, it’ll take a fairly decent package to get him. It’s difficult to peg exactly what that package would look like, but something in the neighborhood of a notable prospect like Carter Kieboom and another piece or two could get the job done. Prices for good relievers at the deadline have been quite high of late.
Trevor Rosenthal would bring a few things to the Nats pen they desperately need. His splits are good, lefties hit .222 while righties bat .188. He’s only allowed two homers all season, something many DC relievers cannot claim, and has only allowed four extra-base hits. He’s essentially everything they want with circumstances to make ownership comfortable. It’s a win-win. One position player recently said:
“We feel like we have to win the game three times.”
Trevor Rosenthal might just be the answer that solidifies the Nationals bullpen, so the offense only has to win the game once.
. . .
Audrey Stark is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter @highstarksunday.