Given the Nationals’ history, no one can be blamed for asking that question with near-expletives and urgency, even in December. Judging by the fact that they bid more than $80 million over five seasons for Kenley Jansen’s cutter-heavy services, Mike Rizzo and his staff seem to think the answer is fairly important, too. They have never been able to stabilize the position for long, and their failed chase of Melancon, Jansen and the rest seems to fit with what should probably at this point be referred to as a closer’s curse.
It began with Chad Cordero, who is a convenient point of origin for a curse like that, for reasons both historical and alliterative. Cordero was one of the earliest Nationals stars, but plummeted when injuries dragged him down after three strong seasons, leaving the Nationals to hunt for a replacement.
Jon Rauch saved 17 games for Washington in 2008. Mike MacDougal saved 20 in 2009. Matt Capps saved 26 in 2010, before the Nationals traded him to the Twins for Wilson Ramos, thereby cementing his as one of the more positive lingering legacies of all the Nationals late-game options.
When Capps left, Drew Storen took over. He saved 43 games in 2011 before having offseason surgery that let Tyler Clippard take over in 2012. Rafael Soriano took over in 2013 and did not concede until mid-2014, when Storen took over again.
He kept the title until late July 2015, when another hunt for back-end help yielded Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon seized the job by, well, you know, and was gone a year later when the Nationals acquired Melancon. Melancon served dutifully before signing with San Francisco, who offered him far more than the Nationals, who then offered Jansen more than the Dodgers did but ended up with nothing. In other words, no Nationals closer has held that job for two full consecutive seasons since Cordero a decade ago.
“No one’s 100 percent, obviously, but when you have guys who are close to 100 percent, it’s huge,” said Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who has seen the best and worst of those Nationals closers first hand. “Because if you win the whole game, if you do things right the entire game and get to those eighth and ninth inning . . . if [blowing games] starts to happen a lot, it gets frustrating.”
Anecdotally, the ninth-inning experience with a trusted closer feels far different than it does with a less reliable one. Statistically, the difference between ninth-inning stability and ninth-inning chaos has mattered to these Nationals a great deal, too:
In their three division-winning years, the Nationals have finished in the upper third of the league in blown saves, i.e., fewer blown saves than two-thirds of the league or more. In 2016, they blew the fewest saves of any National League team.
In their last two non-playoff seasons, they finished with the fourth- and third-most blown saves in the league, respectively. The difference is a handful of saves from season to season, but the difference proved dramatic. As of right now, the Nationals do not have a proven closer on their roster.
“We’re trying [to find one],” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said last week at Winterfest. “If there’s not one out there, then you gotta find him internally, and who knows if we have him in house or not.”
What exactly do the Nationals have in house?
As outlined earlier this month on Fancy Stats, Shawn Kelley’s numbers suggest he could fit the closer profile. He finished in the top 10 among relievers in strikeouts per nine innings in 2016 and eighth in WHIP, tied with Melancon. Among those who ranked higher? Jansen, Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman and Zach Britton — the best closers in the game. Ninth-inning guys tend to strikeout batters at will and shut down rallies before they begin by limiting baserunners. Kelley, at least judging by his performance last year, does both.
But the problem with Kelley, particularly when juxtaposed against names like Jansen, Miller and Britton, is durability. He is two Tommy John surgeries into a career built on a wipeout slider — the pitch known to put more torque on the elbow than any other. Kelley can pitch on back-to-back days, but Baker and Mike Maddux would rather limit his usage. Closers are needed in very specific, unpredictable, and crucial situations. Kelley might not always be available.
Blake Treinen seems a more likely initial choice, and he has the stuff to develop into a top-tier closer. The ground ball rate maintained by his 98-mph sinker was second only to Britton last year. Once unable to get lefties out in spots, Treinen evened his splits in 2016 and was a reliable option in nearly all of them. He ranked 14th among relievers in left-on-base percentage, in part because of his knack for getting double plays.
But because he relies on that sinker, Treinen also relies on contact. His strikeouts per nine innings was 76th highest in the majors last year, and hitters made contact with his pitches more than they did those of 75 other relievers last year. In other words, Treinen does not have the swing-and-miss tendencies of more traditional closers. More contact often means more baserunners. But of the contact he allowed in 2016, only 23 percent of it was hard — a lower percentage than all but a dozen other relievers.
Perhaps the biggest question about Treinen as a closer, however, is his constitution. Treinen is one of the most pleasant, polite and friendly people one can find in a major league clubhouse. A demeanor like that is nothing to apologize for, of course, but general consensus holds closers to an angrier standard.
“Most of the great closers I know are a little on the crazy side, or at least they’re different,” Baker said. “I played with some good ones, and they’re all different, because to try to get the last three outs of a team is very difficult.”
Treinen rose to high-intensity situations last season and could certainly flip a switch. But when it comes to “different,” the kid with a bear claw tattooed on his chest that emanates fearlessness seems like a decent choice, too. That kid is Koda Glover, who has a high-90s fastball, a curveball, a change-up and a cutter, which make him a likely candidate for late-inning duty someday, as well.
Glover hurried to the big leagues last season, his first full year as a professional. He tried to pitch through what turned out to be a torn labrum in his hip and did not do so particularly well. But Baker has praised Glover’s guts and stuff. Perhaps, when the Nationals are sure his injury is healed, he will get another chance at key situations late.
Baker also has brought up Sammy Solis, whose friendliness off the field might be second only to Treinen’s, but whose right-at-them approach on it could make him an option. Solis is currently one of two lefties seemingly locked into spots in the big league bullpen, a harder-throwing, more traditional complement to the free-wheeling Oliver Perez.
“Everybody wants to go out and get somebody, and sometimes it’s right under your nose and you don’t even know it or see it,” Baker said. “The hard part is, you don’t know until you get in action who can handle failure.”
As the roster stands today, Treinen is probably the Nationals’ Opening Day closer — though that eliminates the possibility of using him to get those double play balls in key spots earlier in games. Each of the in-house options comes with risk, but the remaining external options — Greg Holland, trade candidates like David Robertson or Alex Colome and plenty of others — are far from sure things. When it comes to pure stuff, the Nationals might have better choices on their roster now than they can find elsewhere. But if closing were about pure stuff, the Nationals probably would have found a long-term guy by now. Instead, they are doomed to hunt again.