On Sunday, the Washington Nationals traded Blake Treinen, Jesus Luzardo, and Sheldon Neuse to the Oakland Athletics for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. It was a huge deal for the Nats, and their first real step towards addressing a major question mark: their bullpen, which has been desperately in need of reinforcement. (Question mark, gaping hole that engulfs all challengers, they’re one and the same.) Before the season, to be fair, they did try to get someone to solidify their bullpen. They reportedly offered Kenley Jansen what would have been a record-breaking contract for a reliever, and also lost out on the bidding for recently-acquired Mark Melancon to the San Francisco Giants.
By default, the team then looked to 36-year-old Joe Blanton. It was as if the Nationals found that their printer was out of ink, so instead of changing the cartridge they hit it with a hammer several times, put more paper in, and assumed that would do the trick. (Sort of like what the New York Mets have done with their roster the last couple season.) Don’t get me wrong, Blanton was phenomenal in 2016. It’s just that if you are relying on Joe Blanton to be the savior of your bullpen, you are almost certainly doomed to fail from the get-go. Oh yeah, and Matt Albers was also a thing. For the closer-role, though, Blanton was never a factor. It was a battle between Blake Treinen, Koda Glover, and Shawn Kelley. Maybe I just need to hit the printer harder and it’ll work.
Fast-forward to Saturday night, and about everything has gone wrong since that half-hearted attempt at reinforcement. Glover and Kelley are on the disabled list. Blanton hasn’t allowed a run in his last six and two-thirds innings, bringing his ERA down to 7.36 on the year. If you’re looking for pitchers who have been good for the Nationals bullpen, that list is exclusively Matt Albers and Enny Romero. As a team, the Nationals own the worst reliever ERA in the league.
Has it affected them? Of course. But the Braves/Mets/Marlins/Phillies aren’t exactly competing for the division crown, giving Washington a huge margin of error in the regular season. The Nationals have been able to do two things to hold-off the bullpen’s attempted coup — out-hit teams, and lean heavily on their starting pitchers to work deep into games. No rotation in all of baseball has thrown more innings than the Nats. Sure, that is a testament to Max Scherzer/Stephen Strasburg/Gio Gonzalez, but also an issue that could rear its ugly head later in the year. Fatigue is real, and you can’t solve the problem of a bad bullpen by just not using them.
Enter Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. If you think back to the trade the Nationals pulled off for Mark Melancon, you’d have to think part of their motivation was hoping they would be able to sign him after the season. Now they don’t have to worry about losing out on the free agent reliever market. Doolittle is signed through 2018, but has two team options in 2019 and 2020. If he finishes 100 games between 2018-19 his 2020 option becomes mutual. Madson, soon to be 37, is signed through 2018.
Doolittle struggled with a shoulder injury at the beginning of the year, and generally has had a complicated season. With a 3.38 ERA in 21.1 innings, Doolittle has struck out nearly 40 percent of the batters he has faced and walked just 2.5 percent. His main problem, as has reared its ugly head in recent years, is right-handed hitters. Five of the eight runs he has given up have scored on home runs to RHB. But in terms of same-sided hitters, he has absolutely demolished them. Against the 24 lefties he has faced this season, he has yet to allow a hit and struck out 12.
Madson is the owner of a 2.06 ERA in 39 1⁄3 innings of work, with a 27.1 percent strikeout rate. The righty has leaned more on the development of a breaking ball, and has become a groundballer. Madson isn’t quite the strikeout artist Doolittle is, but he is closer to your typical groundball pitcher. Doolittle, on the other hand, will get stung occasionally by the longball as he generates a lot of flyballs.
This deal certainly checks the “attain good relief pitching” item off the Nationals’ list, and both pitchers will help the team. But is it enough?
The Nationals gave up a little, but not an absurd amount. It’s a little like the deal last year to get Mark Melancon. Felipe Rivero (who was sent to the Pirates for Melancon) won’t be a free agent until 2022; Blake Treinen will be one after before the 2021 season. So they decided to deal a controllable reliever off their roster, as well as their 2nd and 3rd round picks in the 2016 draft. MLB.com had both Jesus Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse as top-10 in the Nats system, so it isn’t like they were just toss-ins.
The takeaway here is that, while Doolittle and Madson weren’t cheap, you’d be hard pressed to find great, controllable relievers that are. The Nats also took on both former-Athletics’ remaining salary, which helped. Cash, a current major leaguer, and prospects: a grab bag of things sent to Oakland, helping the Nats hold on to their best prospects. It can help them do more.
The complexion of the pen now looks much better than we’ve been used to. A backend consisting of Doolittle/Madson/Matt Albers/Enny Romero isn’t awful. Joe Blanton seems to be turning a corner, but Oliver Perez has struggled with the longball. Matt Grace has basically been Bryan Duensing (with less dingers) in the late-stages of his career as a Twin. At some point Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley will come back. But it still feels like an incomplete story; like they need just one more reliever.
As for that strong rotation, it has even started to falter a bit. Tanner Roark has struggled mightily, and Joe Ross is down for about a year thanks to Tommy John surgery. Ross hadn’t been great, but he had started to turn it around in mid-June before the injury. Edwin Jackson will be making a spot-start for him Tuesday, but this is obviously an interesting situation facing the Nats. With not many strong options down in the minor leagues, the Nats should look once again to the trade market. The question, however, is whether the Nats further address their bullpen struggles with another solid arm, or whether they look to deal for a starter.
Will they look to push through the playoffs with three solid starters and a destructive lineup? Would the Nationals still go after Pat Neshek, Addison Reed, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, A.J. Ramos, or any of the other available relievers? Do they kick the tires on Justin Verlander or J.A. Happ? Do they think about Jason Vargas, who will likely have a heavy workload in his first full season back from Tommy John?
Mike Rizzo made an interesting comment after the trade, and his foreshadowing for future moves is rather vague:
“I think we’ve done what we came to do at the trade deadline,” Rizzo said. “That’s not to say that we’re going to stop scouting. As we’ve shown in the past, if there’s an opportunity to improve the ballclub, we’ll certainly continue to be aggressive and try to help us out any way we can.”
Don’t get me wrong, this trade was tremendous on the part of the Washington Nationals. Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson almost instantly upgrade their bullpen from “worst in the league” status to “ehh, that’s about normal I suppose.”
But why stop here? The Nationals have arguably the best lineup in the National League. They might have the best three-man rotation combo in baseball. This is a team chasing not just a ring, but their first playoff series win. Go for it! Bullpens become valuable in October because it is the best facing the best, and the old adage of never having too much pitching certainly applies here. All that’s especially true when the Nats are buying in a buyers’ market.
The Nats could use one more pitcher, either a starter or a reliever. Whether they make a trade or not; who knows? What I can tell you is that this trade, assuming both pitchers can stay healthy, puts the Nationals in an even stronger position to play late into October.
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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score, producer of In Play, Pod(cast), and pitcher recovering from Tommy John at Howard Payne University. He is a Senior double majoring in Business Management and Computer Information Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody or email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com