While at the General Managers Meetings on Tuesday at the Boca Raton Resort and Club, General Manager Mike Rizzo said Tthe Nationals front office has had internal discussions about offseason improvements and “broad, general” conversations with other teams. And of all the parts of the Nationals’ roster that need attention, the bullpen is a top priority.
“All three avenues we’re going to explore: trades, free agents and internally,” Rizzo said. “I think we have candidates in all three that we’re going to look at.”
Although the bullpen finished with a 3.46 ERA, 10th in the majors, the Nationals’ disappointing 2015 season, especially the second half, was driven by the relief corps. Twenty different pitchers worked out of the bullpen last season, including seven rookies. The trade for controversial veteran Jonathan Papelbon brought awkwardness to the clubhouse, especially for Drew Storen, who was displaced from the closer’s role despite a strong first half. Both struggled in September, and Papelbon’s season ended with a suspension for choking Bryce Harper during a dugout fight while Storen’s ended with a broken thumb suffered while slamming a locker in frustration.
Both Papelbon and Storen are obvious trade candidates; Storen even wanted a trade after the addition of Papelbon. Storen, who will see a raise through arbitration from his $5.7 million salary this past season, is entering his final year before free agency and the Nationals may want to end the fractured relationship with him. After the way his season ended, Papelbon became even more of a lightning rod in Washington but his value is hurt by his salary ($11 million in 2016) and his growing reputation. Publicly, the Nationals refuse to hurt the trade value of either reliever by appearing eager to deal them.
“As of today, they’re both in the bullpen” in 2016, Rizzo said. “They’re both good relief pitchers. Unless someone makes us a real baseball offer, they will be.”
Rizzo said he has received some interest from other teams on both relievers. If both do indeed return next season, Rizzo said he thinks both can co-exist, and Papelbon with Harper, too. On his own accord, Harper called Papelbon after the season to talk, a move that Rizzo commended as “a real sign of leadership” by Harper.
“He’s the one that initiated it and completed it,” Rizzo said. “I think that goes a long way with your teammates in your clubhouse and shows that this thing is behind us and we’re here to win and that we’re going to get along and be as one.”
Storen and the Nationals have a longer history together. The Nationals pushed Storen out of the ninth inning twice, the first time when they signed Rafael Soriano before the 2013 season. Late during the 2014 season, Storen regained his closer’s role and was one of the NL’s best relievers that season before suffering a second subpar postseason in three years. Despite Storen’s strong start to 2015, the Nationals had serious interest in closers Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman this summer but acquired Papelbon to fix a leaky bullpen, alienating Storen again. Storen posted a 9.22 ERA over his final 13 2/3 innings and, after a critical loss to the New York Mets on Sept. 9, broke his right thumb hitting his locker.
“I think Storen is going to pitch much closer to the guy before the last month of the season than the guy in the last month,” Rizzo said. “It’s important for him to pitch well, for us and I think it’s important for him personally. I think he’s got good stuff, and there’s no reason he should not pitch well.”
Beyond Storen and Papelbon, the Nationals have few reliable options returning to the bullpen next season. Aaron Barrett may be out all of 2016 with his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Matt Thornton, 39, is a free agent, as is Casey Janssen, who struggled in 2015.
Craig Stammen is expected to be ready for spring training after forearm surgery. Felipe Rivero, a left-hander, was the lone impressive reliever out of a group of young arms — including Sammy Solis, Matt Grace, Blake Treinen — that struggled. David Carpenter appeared in only eight games after being acquired by the Nationals in a trade because of his shoulder injury.
With nearly $50 million coming of the books with departing free agents, the Nationals could re-invest some in the bullpen, but that has proven inefficient at times because relievers are so volatile and sometimes the best relievers are developed cheaply from within or through trades. The Nationals have been linked to former Baltimore Orioles reliever Darren O’Day, one of the top free agent relievers, but he would be attractive to many teams. They could also look at setup men such as former National Tyler Clippard or former Kansas City Royal Ryan Madson.
The Nationals could also revisit their interest in Kimbrel or Chapman, but those pitchers’ respective teams were asking for a hefty return of prospects in July. The Nationals could also scour the trade market for other relievers, perhaps more affordable ones that are under longer team control.
“We’ll explore that market and some other markets and make some judgments and determine if the free agent market is the better route to go in this particular offseason or is the trade market more viable to dive into,” Rizzo said. “We’ve kind of done both in the past. With the depth that we have, the trade market might be a good market for us. But you have to balance what you’re giving up for the future.”