“Certain players that have options probably are pitching pretty good. There’s other guys that, contractually, they can’t go,” Dusty Baker said this week. “Or contractually, you’re obligated to pay them a bunch of money. Sometimes you gotta wait.”
Baker was talking about the return of left-hander Sammy Solis (elbow), which could happen as early as this week. When it does, the Nationals can option lefty Matt Grace back to Class AAA Syracuse. Grace has allowed four earned runs in 6 1/3 innings in his most recent stint with the Nationals, and while Baker and others have praised his progress, the decision to send him down makes sense, particularly given that the Nationals would retain the balance they prefer — four right-handers, three left-handers.
Koda Glover revealed Wednesday that he is dealing with “severe rotator cuff inflammation” in his throwing shoulder and is not close to returning to a throwing program.
Kelley last threw on flat ground two days ago, but has not thrown since. Baker did not indicate any setbacks, but rehabbing players normally throw every other day. Baker did not suggest Kelley was nearing a bullpen session or minor league rehab appearance, either.
Assuming Solis is back by the time Kelley or Glover is ready to return, the Nationals’ bullpen will consist of Solis, Enny Romero, Oliver Perez, Jacob Turner, Blake Treinen, Joe Blanton, and Matt Albers. Of those seven pitchers, only Treinen and Solis have options. The Nationals have stuck with Treinen through good and bad, relentlessly faithful to his 98 mile per hour sinker. If Solis is pitching well, he is not going anywhere, either.
Perez is in the second year of a two-year, $7 million deal, meaning the Nationals have paid the bulk of his contract already. But Perez is a veteran presence in the bullpen and has the third-best ERA of the group. He also has the second-lowest WHIP (1.13), so while he has not been perfect, he has avoided the controllable pitfall of allowing unnecessary base runners.
Kelley, meanwhile, is in the second year of a three-year, $15 million deal, meaning the Nationals would have to eat the contract to send him out. Kelley has battled injury for much of this season, his velocity a few ticks down from last year and his slider lacking bite. Perhaps getting healthy will help him recover his form. Even if it doesn’t, the Nationals seem unlikely to eat the money on his deal, particularly because he is a well-liked member of their veteran clubhouse.
Joe Blanton’s situation is similarly complicated by his salary. The Nationals owe Blanton $4 million for this season, the kind of deal they have been reluctant to swallow in the past. But Blanton simply has not looked like a pitcher who was one of baseball’s most reliable relievers during the past two seasons. He has a 1.83 WHIP and has allowed eight home runs in 18 innings, his numbers so inflated one could certainly bet on a return to normal. But as the calendar hits July, the Nationals do not have much time left to bet on turnarounds.
So, barring a disabled list stint for any of them, Kelley, Blanton and Perez seem likely to stick around — unless the Nationals decide to eat money, which could limit their ability to spend it at the deadline. The Lerner family has generally not been willing to spend significant amounts midseason, so last year’s deal for Mark Melancon represented something of an aberration.
For the sake of argument, then, say the Nationals are unwilling to eat the contracts of any more veteran relievers. In that case, they will need to release lower-cost pitchers to make room. Turner, Romero and Albers all came to the Nationals at very little cost, Turner and Albers as nonroster spring training invitees, Romero in a deal with Tampa for a non-prospect reliever.
But should the Nationals designate any of those three for assignment, they would have to clear waivers to stay in the organization. Albers has been the Nationals’ best and most consistent reliever all season. Romero is emerging as a true left-handed setup option — one still learning to hone his breaking ball, but whose command has improved dramatically since coming to Washington.
The Nationals like Turner, who could serve as a spot starter or give them an inning of middle relief, and do not want to lose him. But one of them will probably have to go if Kelley returns or a new reliever necessitates a move. In other words, many pitchers in the Nationals’ bullpen are pitching for their jobs now — though, perhaps, they always were.
“They’re big boys. They know,” Baker said Wednesday. “They also know that I feel competition is healthy sometimes. Most of the time.”
The Nationals could also choose to carry an extra pitcher and a short bench when Solis — or Kelley — returns. They have shown themselves willing to do that before. Another option is to send down Joe Ross as they did earlier this season, a move that would allow them to carry an extra reliever without shortening their bench. But Ross has seemingly earned his keep in the fifth spot, and the Nationals seem unlikely to choose that route.
So while the Nationals tend not to release talent they think could help them in the future — often finding a way to keep them around — they will probably have to make some tough decisions soon. Though those tough decisions will come in the midst of what should be an easy one: adding reliable pieces to a relief corps that could use a few more of them.