FORT MYERS, Fla. – Blake Treinen will be the Washington Nationals’ closer, Manager Dusty Baker announced Thursday, ending a spring of speculation hours before the team boarded its flight home from spring training.
“I think a lot of us came into spring, willing to put our heads down and compete and be the best that we can, knowing that we’re all going to have valuable innings,” said Treinen, fresh from a game of catch, clutching bubble gum in his hand as he leaned against a wall at Jet Blue Park. “To be in the position Dusty has put me in, I feel honored.”
The question that hovered over the Nationals since the day last season ended now has its answer, three days before this season begins. Their search for a steady, long-term closer – a quest that has been fruitless for more than a decade – began with offers to all-stars Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon this winter. Neither accepted.
The pursuit continued with a three-candidate spring training race, as Treinen, Shawn Kelley, and Koda Glover all have the raw stuff to do the job. Baker, General Manager Mike Rizzo and pitching coach Mike Maddux discussed their options, a process that Baker admitted included plenty of “healthy debate.”
Rizzo always considered Treinen the most natural fit if the Nationals could not acquire a closer during the winter. Baker seemed to stump for Glover, whose grit and demeanor he praised repeatedly.
Concerns about Kelley’s twice-repaired elbow eliminated him from contention, which left Glover, a 23-year-old who started last season in Class A, and Treinen, a friendly 28-year-old who evolved into a late-inning weapon last season. They settled on Treinen, his track record of durability and his high-90s power sinker – the kind of pitch that elevated Baltimore’s Zach Britton to the upper closing echelon in recent years.
“Blake has that turbo sinker. He may give up a hit or a walk, but he’s always one pitch away from getting two outs with one pitch,” Baker said. “He was really good at getting lefties out the second half last season, so perhaps he’s found that formula.”
Baker said that Treinen was excited when he heard he would close, a surprise to Baker, who did not know the mild-mannered right-hander felt that way. He asked Treinen why he never expressed a desire to close before. Treinen told him it “wasn’t his place to say it.”
“That’s Blake,” Baker said. “You have to understand how respectful Blake is.”
Treinen’s “respectfulness” has been interpreted differently over the years. In 2015, when he struggled so much against lefties and in general that he was sent down, that friendliness felt like a weakness. Last year, when he held opposing hitters to a .220 average and left 84 percent of inherited runners on base, it did not seem like much of a factor at all.
Treinen does not have the kind of personality most people associate with closing. He smiles more than he sulks, is more friendly than fiery, and deflects attention when he can. But his is a quiet confidence, the kind that inspires him to do all his crossword puzzles in permanent marker – the kind of confidence that keeps him insisting all he needs to do is be himself and use what he calls his “God-given” sinker.
“I’ve been through a lot. I’ve failed on the biggest stage. I’ve had success, not on the biggest stage, but in some big-time situations,” Treinen said. “I know that I can do it. Coming into this year, there was never a question in my head of whether I was capable of doing it. It was just a matter of what was best for the team.”
What was best for the team, Baker, Rizzo and Maddux decided, was to have Treinen use that 98-mph sinker to pitch the ninth, at least to begin with. Previously, that pitch made Treinen a valuable swing man, the kind of guy the Nationals could bring in to put out fires, and stop big innings with quick double-play balls. Baker admitted the Nationals will sacrifice that part of Treinen’s game by making him the closer.
But slotting Treinen for the ninth allows Baker to choose from Kelley, newly acquired Joe Blanton, and Glover for setup duties, with Sammy Solis, hard-throwing Enny Romero and veteran Oliver Perez available from the left side. Their bullpen, while not officially set to include those seven, appears deeper now than it has in recent history.
That bullpen is also unproven, particularly late in the game. Should Treinen struggle, questions will fly fast, particularly with Glover also well-equipped to pitch the ninth.
“[Jonathan] Papelbon was where Blake is at some point in time. Everybody was. [Zach] Britton was, too,” Baker said. “There’s going to be some stumbles … But, you can’t just have one stumble and get somebody else. How do you develop that?”
So Treinen will get a chance to do what so many closers before him could not: Stick and stay. Not since Chad Cordero in the early years of the franchise in Washington has a Nationals closer completed two consecutive seasons in that role.
Treinen, who will be eligible for arbitration for the first time after this season, is under team control long-term. Should he take to the role, he could take the role for the foreseeable future. For now, he is not planning any grand entrance routine, nor even changing his entrance music from last year’s pick, Eric Church’s The Outsiders.
“Same guy, just doing the same thing,” Treinen said. “Different inning, that’s all.”