The Nationals’ Bullpen Problem Isn’t Just a Closer Problem

Over the winter, the Washington Nationals were interested in a bunch of closers. Most notably, they were the runners-up in the Kenley Jansen bidding, with Jansen publicly stating that the Nationals offered him more money than the Dodgers did. The team was also linked heavily to David Robertson in trade rumors, so it was a fairly surprising development when the team ended up not acquiring anyone to replace Mark Melancon, instead leaning on their internal options to fill the ninth inning void.

So far, it hasn’t gone well, with Shawn Kelley blowing another ninth inning lead yesterday, the third time this year the Nationals have lost a game they led headed into the ninth inning. Kelley’s blown save included his sixth home run allowed this year, a staggering total for a guy who has thrown just 11 1/3 innings so far in 2017. Blake Treinen and Koda Glover haven’t been much better, with Treinen walking too many guys and Glover striking out too few, so while the Nationals maintain a comfortable 7 1/2 game lead in the NL East, it’s becoming more and more obvious that the team will be making a trade for another closer this summer.

But while acquiring an available closer certainly may help, the reality is that the Nationals 2017 bullpen issue doesn’t appear to be as easily fixed as it was in 2016. Last year, the team had a bunch of quality setup guys pitching well in front of Jonathan Papelbon, and was able to solidify an already-strong unit by bringing in Melancon to anchor the squad. This year, though, the problems are running much deeper than just the ninth inning.

As a group, the Nationals relief corps has been just about the worst in baseball to this point. Their .356 wOBA allowed is dead last in the game. They are 28th in reliever FIP and 25th in reliever BABIP, which isn’t a very good combination. They have 24 meltdowns, nearly three times as many as the Rockies, who outbid the Nationals for Greg Holland over the winter.

But team-level totals can sometimes be skewed by a few lousy performances. For instance, the Tigers bullpen also rates as one of the worst in baseball so far, but that’s mostly because Francisco Rodriguez and Anibal Sanchez have combined to give up 38 runs in 32 innings pitched; their four other relievers with 10+ IP all have ERAs under 2.00. The Tigers had a closer problem, so they swapped out K-Rod for Justin Wilson, and they have a long-reliever problem, so they’ll probably cut Anibal Sanchez, but beyond those two, their bullpen is doing okay.

That isn’t the case for the Nationals.

Washington Relievers, 2017
Blake Treinen 16.2 8.10 4.51 4.76 0.0
Enny Romero 16.2 4.86 4.39 4.16 0.0
Matt Albers 14.2 0.61 2.74 2.76 0.3
Joe Blanton 12.1 9.49 8.60 4.72 -0.5
Shawn Kelley 11.1 7.15 8.83 4.90 -0.8
Koda Glover 10.2 3.38 2.26 4.30 0.4
Jacob Turner 10.1 2.61 2.82 4.76 0.3
Oliver Perez 8.1 4.32 4.69 4.58 -0.1
Matt Grace 4.1 6.23 3.24 4.40 0.0
Sammy Solis 4.1 8.31 6.70 5.25 -0.1

To this point, their bullpen has been saved by Matt Albers and Jacob Turner, both of whom began the year in the minors. Those two are the only ones with ERAs under 3.00, and Glover is the only other guy under 4.00, though he (like Turner) isn’t missing enough bats for that to last long-term. By xFIP, Albers is #1 at 2.76, and then the next lowest mark on the team is Enny Romero’s 4.16; the league average reliever has a 4.14 ERA/FIP/xFIP this year, for reference. You really don’t want to have only one guy in your bullpen better than that, and you especially don’t want that one guy to be Matt Albers, a 34-year-old journeyman with a grand total of +1.2 WAR in over 600 career innings pitched.

Now, of course, almost everyone on that list should pitch better going forward than they have to this point. Kelley, Treinen, and Blanton were all very good relievers last year, and Glover’s stuff helps him project as a solid relief arm even without a lot of big league experience. While there might not be a guy that Dusty Baker will entrust the ninth inning to among that group, our forecasts suggest that the Nationals bullpen should pitch at roughly a league-average level going forward.

But for a team that is very likely headed to the postseason, a league average bullpen probably doesn’t cut it, and with guys like Kelley and Treinen pitching their way out of Baker’s circle of confidence, the Nationals may need to start thinking about whether they need to acquire multiple relievers this summer. It’s basically guaranteed that Mike Rizzo will trade for a closer at some point before July 31st — whether that be Robertson, Kelvin Herrera, or someone else — but given the total meltdown of basically every non-Albers reliever in the team’s bullpen, perhaps the Nationals would be better off making a trade that brought back multiple relievers instead.

For instance, the A’s could potentially offer a combo package, perhaps combining Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle together to give the team potential upgrades from both the left and right side. Doolittle would have to get back on the mound before that kind of deal would be possible, but a deal like that could actually have a larger impact on Washington’s relief corps than simply adding a ninth-inning guy and hoping the rest of the holdovers can get him a lead. Or perhaps the team could simply ask the White Sox to kick in one of their surprisingly effective setup guys, either Tommy Kahnle or Anthony Swarzak, to go along with Robertson in order to get that long-rumored deal done.

Depending on who else ends up as sellers, perhaps the Nationals could simply choose to make two trades, getting a ninth inning guy from one team and then another setup guy in a separate deal. That’s what the team did last year, when they acquired Mark Melancon and Marc Rzepczynski in separate trades with Pittsburgh and Oakland, after all. But if they can find the right package deal, a single trade for two relievers might ensure that they don’t get outbid in trade talks like they did in free agency. And with the volatility of reliever performance, the team may be better off with two upgrades rather than one anyway, since you can’t really count on that one shiny acquisition pitching well enough to carry an entire bullpen through the month of October.

The dumpster fire that is the rest of the NL East gives them time to be patient, to not have to panic into an early overpay for an inferior option, but it’s tough to look at this current group and think that the Nationals only need one more reliever to be set for October. In looking for bullpen upgrades, Mike Rizzo might want to start thinking about how to buy in bulk.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

Is Victor Robles for Robertson, Nate Jones, AND Swarzak too video-gamey to get done?

Yeah, it is, I know.

6 years ago
Reply to  Eminor3rd

Seems reasonable – you’d basically trading for 2-3 innings of high leverage pitching per game. Worth a top 20 guy IMO.

6 years ago
Reply to  Eminor3rd

ChiSox would never do that. Robertson + Swarzak = Robles + stuff could happen, but Nate Jones is too controllable and too cheap. He’s worth more.

6 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Jones is certainly the most valuable of the three relievers, but I don’t think he’s worth more than Robles. At the end of the day, he;s still an RP, and his injury issues are starting to look like they might be recurring at this point.

6 years ago
Reply to  Eminor3rd

Robles is worth significantly more than Robertson Jones and Swarzak, and typically packages of prospects get traded for one star major leaguer, not one star prospect getting traded for a package of mediocre major leaguers.

6 years ago
Reply to  johansantana17

Robles would have gotten Robertson straight up in the offseason, and the Nats said “no”. Now they are somewhat more desperate, and that’s not going to make Robertson cheaper or incentivize the ChiSox to add more bullpen talent to the package.

Especially not Jones. Jones is worth MORE than Robertson. He is. Contracts matter.

6 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Contracts do matter.

However Nate Jones is not very much younger than Robertson, has more history of injury than Robertson and is currently on the disabled list (again).

Contracts matter, sure. But there are reasons why Jones is is being payed so much less than Robertson.

Will Lofton
6 years ago
Reply to  Eminor3rd

Well Robles is a 60 or 65 FV prospect, worth about $60-70M. Swarzak’s had a great first month, but I’m not sure Robertson for a year and a half + Jones and Swarzak is worth $60-70M in value.

The Ghost of Stephen Drews Bat
6 years ago
Reply to  Will Lofton

I’m a Yankees fan and hearing Robles for Swarzak + plus is giving me a heart attack

6 years ago
Reply to  Eminor3rd

I’m wondering the same thing about Cain+Soria+Herrera for basically robles+soto or fedde
my rationale: soria has be great again this year, herrera is controllable and cheap because he hasn’t closed before. would likely have to overpay bc trade deadline for controllable bullpen pieces. cain is best cf available.