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MLB Trade Deadline: Nats add Kintzler, try to solve relief woes

Washington acquired a closer in Brandon Kintzler, but the move still seems too minor for a bullpen in dire need.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Behind only the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins, the Washington Nationals have the second-worst reliever ERA (5.07) and third-worst FIP (4.64). If we look at fWAR, the Nationals relief corps has provided an almost-round -0.1 fWAR to the team. Not ideal for a team on the verge of winning the NL East crown again and heading into what seem likely to be the most intense playoffs of this century.

So given their bullpen woes that have seen nine different pitchers try to earn a save (and most of them fail explosively at least once), the Nationals traded for a reliever who could help end those woes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the reliever most Nats fans expected or hoped for. Rather than going for Pat Neshek, or Addison Reed, the Nationals decided to trade for Twins closer Brandon Kintzler.

Kintzler is by no means a bad pitcher. On the contrary — aside from a blown save in today’s game against the Dodgers (hopefully not a preview of things to come) — he has been a shining light within the Minnesota bullpen. By virtually all measures this season, Kintzler looks solid:

Kintzler’s track record

2017 45.1 5.36 2.18 2.78 62 3.68 83 4.08 0.7
Career 280.2 6.29 2.24 3.24 80 3.67 90 3.47 2.1
Kintzler 2017, Career pitching stats Data from FanGraphs

The only blemish on Kintzler is that he doesn’t strikeout enough batters (5.36 K/9).

Kintzler has a solid repertoire that fits well with the Nationals’ infield and should help them get out of any potential jams. He sports a 53.9 percent groundball rate, which probably won’t see much regression given that it comes on the back of a 94mph fastball/sinker combo, in addition to an impressive changeup and slider.

But this seems like Kintzler’s breakout season, and it’s possible he can’t sustain it. His career numbers, while still good, aren’t on par with the top-shelf relievers, or even the tier just below them. He will not be the Nationals’ version of Andrew Miller, and even Cody Allen might be an optimistic comparison. Hopefully, the tenth time is the charm when it comes to fixing this ailing bullpen.

Despite getting a solid reliever, it still feels that it’s too little for a club chasing it’s first pennant. This trade deadline was marked with many deals for relief pitching and the Nationals seemed to have been sleeping while other teams were making phone calls, or unwilling to pay the price that elite relievers command in 2017.

If we take a look at the Nationals’ bullpen stats, you can see that there is still work to be done by the time the playoffs start:

Washington Nationals 2017 Reliever stats

2017 293 8.63 3.32 5.07 116 4.64 108 4.45 -0.1
Washington Nationals 2017 Reliever stats Data from Fangraphs

The Nationals have an ERA and FIP 16 and 8 percent worse than the league averages in each stat. Knowing this, they probably should have gone big by acquiring multiple late-inning relievers. Instead, the moves they’ve made so far may presage yet another early playoff exit.

Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies
The floor is the NLCS.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

But that reluctance or inability to acquire a high-octane reliever is why LHP Tyler Watson, a young pitcher in the Nats farm system, is going to Minnesota instead of a higher-profile prospect. Watson currently sports a 9.48 K/9, 2.32 BB/9, 0.48 HR/9, and a 48.0 percent groundball rate in the SALLY league. According to FanGraphs’s KATOH prospect projection system, Watson looks like a 2.7 WAR-player through his first six season of big league ball, a fairly decent figure (though my editor Nicholas Stellini will be the first to tell you that, given his age and level (and KATOH’s one-dimensional nature), we still can’t make a definitive assessment of Watson).

Nevertheless, scouts feel he’ll need to move to the bullpen in order to make the most out of his pitching arsenal. Given this, it feels like Minnesota got a better reliever with more upside than what they gave up in Kintzler. Watson won’t see the majors for a while now (especially if he stays as a starter), so the retrospective analysis will take some time to unfold, but the Twins aren’t in too much of a hurry.

So far this season, the Nationals have added three arms to their pen, but compared to what other teams have done to bolster their lineups, it looks like Washington will come to regret their decision once October starts off. They could always trade for someone else before the August non-waiver trade deadline, but while the Dodgers and the Cubs have gone from good to great, the Nationals have barely budged.