Who’s Going to Close for the Nats?

That’s a heck of a title for a FanGraphs article in 2017, isn’t it? Modern sabermetric discourse doesn’t give much credit to the traditional ninth-inning closer’s role. It focuses, rather, on deploying the right man at the right time, about Andrew Miller parachuting into the game at Terry Francona’s leisure to throw multiple innings of comedy. Closers? Who needs a set closer?

Well, most teams do, if for no other reason than a lot of players and managers aren’t quite ready to do away with the closer’s role just yet. One of those teams would be the Washington Nationals, who don’t need a closer as much as they need at least one more good relief pitcher. Mark Melancon did an admirable job finishing out games for the club following a trade-deadline deal that sent him to Washington, but he’s now employed by the Giants. The Nats haven’t replaced him just yet. In fact, they haven’t added any relievers to the big-league roster. Mike Rizzo has acquired some spare arms in Austin Adams and Jimmy Cordero, but they’ll likely be opening the season in Triple-A. One has to imagine that the current incarnation of the bullpen won’t be the one in place on Opening Day, right?

They’ve certainly made an effort to change the relief corps so far. They were in on Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen before the former returned to New York and the latter went back to Los Angeles. Free agency is a fickle thing. So here we are, at the tail end of January, and the Nats have yet to make a significant upgrade to their bullpen. With a team that’s looking to win a World Series before their last two years of Bryce Harper are up, that’s something that needs to be addressed.

But who? Who’s going to close for the Nationals?

Shawn Kelley

He’s the man who currently has the job. Kelley’s been a fine reliever for years now, and in theory, there’s nothing wrong with him being the guy who closes out games. He’s as good a candidate as anyone left at this stage. However, it also wouldn’t be bad if Kelley and his excellent strikeout tendencies were free to be used in the eighth or earlier. Of course, if Kelley does end up closing, it could behoove Rizzo to sign…

Joe Blanton?

I’m surprised Blanton doesn’t have a job yet. He’s spent the last two years proving that, shockingly enough, he’s a dynamite reliever. Batters have hit just .201 off him since his return. Blanton doesn’t have the “proven closer” title just yet, but he would do a fine job as Kelley’s setup man, in turn allowing Sammy Solis and Blake Treinen to be deployed in lower-leverage situations. And seriously, how wild is it that we’re talking about Joe freaking Blanton in this way? He’s 36, so he likely wouldn’t require anything more than a relatively cheap two-year deal. Speaking of cheap…

Greg Holland

Greg Holland was pretty damn good before he got hurt. He was one of the famous three heads of the monster that lurked at the back of the Royals’ bullpen during their bonkers run to the World Series. Injury robbed him of his 2016, and now he’s looking for a rebound. That doesn’t necessarily sound like a good recipe for a team that’s all-in on contention. Just ask Lucas Giolito about how serious Washington is about winning now and not later. Can the Nats afford to gamble on Holland’s elbow? Maybe, maybe not. If we’re looking for a better bet, there’s always…

David Robertson

Here’s an interesting question: who is Robertson right now? Is he the elite reliever he’s been for most of his career, or is he teetering at the precipice? Robertson cut down on the home runs this year, but he issued more free passes and struck out fewer men. Robertson is an enigma, but if the Nationals wind up with a slightly improved version of 2016’s Robertson, they’ll be quite happy. If Robertson’s control keeps wavering, they’ll need another solution, such as…

Sean Doolittle/Ryan Madson

Now we’re talking. I detailed recently how the A’s may be willing to move one of their better relievers like Doolittle or Madson after signing Santiago Casilla. Oakland isn’t winning anything anytime soon, and they have little reason to keep their excellent bullpen intact because of that. Doolittle in particular could bring back something shiny, and he’d fit nicely onto the Washington roster if he’s healthy. Of course, again, they could simply roll with Kelley for the time being. If they decide that they need more around the trade deadline, there’s always…

Alex Colome/Kelvin Herrera/Fernando Rodney

These three relievers play for teams that will presumably be on the outside of contention looking in when the trade deadline arrives this summer. Rodney is easily the least attractive option, given his ugly walk numbers last year. He is, however, a Proven Closer (TM), so he’s got that going for him, which is nice. Colome still has plenty of years of control left, and plays for a Rays team that will be hunting for as much value as possible. He will be an expensive acquisition if he stays dominant in the coming months. Similarly, the Royals will be interested in getting a lot for Herrera, but he’ll only have a year and a half of control left at the deadline, so he should cost less than Colome.

Stephen Strasburg!

I know, I know. But in the not-too-outlandish scenario in which Strasburg can’t stay healthy enough to handle a starter’s workload, wouldn’t it be fun to watch him carve batters up in relief? It’ll never happen. Never. Ever. But woo boy, it would be fun.

The long and the short of it is that the Nationals don’t lack for options despite the date on the calendar. It would be truly surprising to see them enter camp without making a single major addition to the relief corps, so a move may be happening soon. Fear not, Nats fans. A closer is coming to a ballpark near you.

Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

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7 years ago

I think Greg Holland is a gamble that now is more than worth it. If you decide you want to take the risk of Holland over signing Jansen, that’s a huge gamble that could turn out bad. But they tried to get a top tier guy and simply couldn’t. Now the bet is I hope Greg Holland returns to form . Before it would have been, I hope that Holland somehow comes back and puts up an elite numbers line with Jansen. I think if you sign Holland and do nothing else to the bullpen, that also holds a lot more risk. Sign him, plus Blanton or another middle guy and you hope one of them pans out.