The game five loss to the Chicago Cubs in the 2017 playoffs began the collapse of the dominant regular season for the Washington Nationals. The Lerner family, who owns the team, decided to part ways with manager Dusty Baker who was a key part of the team’s success.
They decided to hire current manager Davey Martinez who was handed almost the same roster as the year before but with some free agent additions like relief pitchers Justin Miller, Matt Albers, Tim Collins and first baseman Matt Adams.
With those free agent additions, Martinez and the Nationals struggled offensively last season as well as the occasional bullpen meltdown which plagued the Nationals the last few years. General Manager Mike Rizzo has tried to add relief arms during every free agent period and at the trade deadline, but only a few seemed to stick.
This past off-season, the Nationals signed former St. Louis Cardinal closer Trevor Rosenthal who didn’t pitch last year due to recovering from Tommy John surgery, which is an ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction. They also signed former Houston Astro left-hander Tony Sipp to replace left-hander Sammy Solis, who was released and signed by the San Diego Padres.
Despite all these free agent acquisitions and trades, the bullpen is still struggling. According to ESPN, the Nationals' bullpen currently ranks last in the entire league with an earned run average (ERA) of 8.01 over 17 games. They have given up 43 earned runs over 48 and a third innings pitched which is the least amount of innings pitched in the majors.
Teams are hitting over .300 against the Nationals' relief arms which shows teams are either seeing the ball well out of the pitcher’s hand, or the pitchers are not hitting their spots.
So how is Rizzo going to go about fixing the bullpen to try and make another playoff run? The first option that comes to mind is to sign free agent Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel was speculated to be an interest to many teams this off-season, yet has remained unsigned through the first three weeks of the season.
Although Kimbrel struggled in the beginning of the post-season last year, he and the Boston Red Sox went on to win the World Series. Over the course of his career, Kimbrel has pitched 532 2/3 innings and has a career 1.91 ERA while striking out over 14 batters for every nine innings pitched.
Rizzo tried signing Bud Norris after his release from the Toronto Blue Jays but the deal fell through and the team continues to search for answers. A possible solution could be right hander Will Harris of the Houston Astros. The 34-year old pitched 56.2 innings last season and had a 3.49 ERA and gathered over 10 strikeouts per nine innings.
Harris gave up only three homeruns last year and 14 walks with are two things the Nationals bullpen struggle with. Harris is a groundball pitcher with almost 50% of the balls put into play being groundballs. The Nationals could benefit from an arm like Harris who is a free agent at the end of the year.
Another right hander the Nationals could benefit trading for is Pedro Strop. Strop is a late inning reliever for the Chicago Cubs who are surprisingly struggling in the NL Central. Last season he pitched almost 60 innings with a quiet 2.26 ERA.
Strop hasn’t had an ERA of over three since the 2013 season when he was traded from the Orioles to the Cubs as part of the Jake Arrieta trade package. The Nationals could use another pitcher for high leverage innings since some pitchers like Sean Doolittle are pitching back-to-back days in tough situations.
The combination of Strop, Doolittle and Wander Suero could prove to be the right combination to anchor the bullpen after the combination of Ryan Madson, Kelvin Herrera and Doolittle was ineffective. It might be tough for the Nationals to get Strop from the claws of the Cubs but it could be worth it.
The Nationals could also decide to add a third left hander to their bullpen in Giants pitcher Will Smith. Smith the pitcher not the actor pitched 53 innings and had a 2.55 ERA. Smith would be a good compliment to fellow left hander Sean Doolittle with 71 strikeouts.
He has proven a tough assignment for hitters who own a .190 average against him. While only giving up three homeruns last season, Smith walked 15 batters which can prove fatal in the late innings of a game.
Rizzo has many choices to choose from in terms of bullpen arms in the Majors with many more waiting in the minors. The Lerners have said they want to stay under the tax threshold this season, so they don’t have to pay extra at the end of the year.
This means Rizzo will have to be creative at the trade deadline if he decides it’s worth fixing the bullpen in the middle of the season.