WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Dusty Baker did not name a closer on Tuesday when he met with reporters for the first time this spring. He did not outline a specific process by which he will choose one, nor even declare an outright competition, either.
“Without a real, bona fide closer, somebody always emerges,” Baker said, seemingly confident the answer would become clear in time. But one part of Baker’s thinking needs no clarification.
“I don’t like [closer]-by-committee,” said Baker, reiterating a previously stated aversion to that approach, “because when the phone rings I want guys to know, mentally, when they might be in the game.”
So Baker wants one man to pitch the ninth. He shared less clarity regarding who that man might be. Baker conceded that Blake Treinen and Shawn Kelley could pitch the ninth — or “somewhere back there” — but outlined concerns about each of them. He would not rule out Koda Glover, but wondered aloud if the young right-hander “might be too bold.” Baker admitted 42-year-old righty Joe Nathan, who has 377 saves in his career, intrigues him. He hinted that another closing candidate could be on the way, because “who knows? Something else might be in the works.”
Kelley has the typical closer’s repertoire, high-strikeout stuff and a long track record of missing bats. But while he thrived in late-inning duties last season, he did not succeed in latest inning duty. In 19 1/3 innings of ninth-inning work, Kelley pitched to a 6.05 ERA with a 7.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In the 35 innings he threw in the seventh and eighth innings, Kelley pitched to a 0.77 ERA with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 9.6.
But the number that gives Baker most pause when it comes to Kelley as closer is two, the number of Tommy John surgeries done on the 32-year-old’s right elbow.
“He seems a likely candidate, but we have to see — can his arm sustain?” Baker said. If not, “we’ll be looking for somebody else, and be without him, too. That’s the thing you don’t want. Then you got to replace two people.”
Kelley said he feels healthy, and that closing can actually be easier on a reliever’s arm than the less-predictable middle relief role. While setup men or middle relievers often warm up for one situation, then sit down until another presents itself, closers generally only warm up once — for the ninth — and can often sense whether or not they will be needed by the middle of the game.
“I’m not ever going to be a guy that’s going to throw 4 or 5 days in a row, like [Jonathan Papelbon used to do when he was younger, or like Mariano used to do with his rubber arm," Kelley said. " … you won’t see [Mike Maddux] running anybody out there 3 or 4 times in a row in April. That’s why we have other quality arms.”
So then, perhaps, Treinen? The right-hander with can’t-miss stuff struggled in 2015, both with pressure and lefties. He seemed to fix both in 2016, when left-handed hitters hit .221 against him, and righties hit .225. In “high-leverage” situations — moments in which win probability can change dramatically — Treinen held opponents to a .194 batting average against, better than in moments Baseball Reference defines as low leverage or medium leverage.
Yet no stat properly quantifies late-inning grit, and the best closers usually employ a larger-than-usual quantity of self-delusion and an uncommon amount of bravado. Treinen, who is as friendly as they come, seems to have neither — though he did unleash a few more fist pumps and wild yells as he succeeded more and more in late-game situations last year.
“People joke about that, about me being too much of a nice guy,” Treinen said Wednesday. “But when I’m between the lines, I still know how to compete. There’s some dog in me.”
Baker said every pitcher has been in the situation where he had to correct something, and Treinen corrected his something (his approach against lefties) last year. But does that mean he is ready?
“Is that fair to say that he’s a candidate for that situation, or are we rushing him because you want him to evolve rather him quickly?” Baker said. “You want him to evolve and not destroy him. I’ve seen guys’ confidence get destroyed, too, and I’m going to call upon my past and what I’ve seen.”
So if Treinen isn’t ready, could Glover — who began last season in Class A — be so precocious as to seize the closer’s job this year? Health will determine the extent of his candidacy, at least at first. Late last season, Glover pitched through what he learned later was a torn labrum in his hip, one that could have been repaired surgically but that he chose to rehabilitate this winter instead.
Glover did physical therapy on his left hip all season, trying to eliminate the slippage and “dagger-like” feeling he experienced when pitching late last season. Wednesday, he said he feels 100 percent ready to go, but admitted he will need to continue that therapy for the rest of his career, while carefully monitoring his strength and nutrition to keep his hip strong.
If he is, indeed, healthy, the question remains: What do the Nationals have in him, exactly? How much was he affected by that injury during his time in the majors last season? Glover allowed runs in two of his first nine appearances in the majors, before and in the early stages of that hip injury. He allowed runs in six of his last eight appearances, all of which came with pain in his hip. But his high-90s fastball, developing arsenal and seemingly endless self-assurance make Glover a classic closer in the making — as long as last year’s struggles, or injuries, do not linger.
“Everybody’s going to have a rough time. It’s just a matter of how you respond to that rough time,” Baker said. “That’s big. I’ve seen guys get a lot better. I’ve seen guys that can’t handle it. I know about Koda. I know he’s not afraid. Is he too bold? Sometimes. You can be too bold, too.”
But if Kelley is too fragile and Treinen too green and Glover too bold, who else might Baker and the Nationals consider?
“Joe Nathan’s in camp. He’s closed, too,” said Baker, somewhat understating the résumé of the man with the eighth-most saves in baseball history. “I had him as a kid. And I begged the Giants not to trade him. So I’m curious to see how much Joe is Joe.”
Nathan threw in the mid-90s in his prime. Now, at 42, he is two Tommy John surgeries in and has not pitched much in the majors since 2014. During a brief stint with Chicago last year, his fastball barely ticked over 91. Velocity, of course, is not necessarily everything.
Still, Nathan would be just as fragile as Kelley, if not more so, and does not have the wipeout stuff of Treinen or Glover. The Nationals watched another veteran who used to miss bats, Jonathan Papelbon, fade in effectiveness last year.
As for what else “might be in the works,” that remains to be seen. White Sox closer David Roberston remains available, though Nationals GM Mike Rizzo and White Sox GM Rick Hahn have discussed several iterations of various deals this winter and have still not consummated a trade for Robertson. Presumably, both sides know what it would take to complete a deal like that. Often, spring training injuries create unforeseen openings around the league, spurring trade movement that might not have been necessary during the winter. Certainly, a deal for another reliever seems a reasonable possibility.
But for now, Baker does not have a good answer to the question of who will be his closer, other than to say that it will be someone, because he wants his relievers to know their roles. Determining exactly what those roles are, however, might take some time.
DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY: 47
This post has been updated since the morning.