LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Mike Rizzo all but chuckled when asked whether the Nationals might pursue a ninth-inning reliever this offseason, someone to push Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle back an inning in some kind of super bullpen.
“I wouldn’t rule it out but we’ve been down this road before,” Rizzo said, shaking his head. “They’re hard to find and it’d be hard to match what our two back-of-the-bullpen guys have done, at least from last season.”
Rizzo’s big deadline deal with Oakland got him Madson and Doolittle, natural eighth- and ninth-inning guys who filled those roles well. Madson had a 1.37 ERA in 20 appearances with the Nationals; Doolittle pitched to a 2.40 ERA and saved 21 games. In other words, they did exactly what they were supposed to do, and gave few credible indications that they will not do the same in 2018.
As a result, the Nationals could enter next season with Madson as their setup man and Doolittle as their closer and still feel confident their bullpen is more stable than it has been entering past seasons. They already have a ninth-inning guy, hence Rizzo’s reaction to the suggestion that they’d need another. For once, the lingering closer question seems to have an answer.
So for the Nationals this winter, the bullpen priority can be best be described as “right-handed relievers.” Oliver Perez will depart in free agency, but Enny Romero and Sammy Solis will return to give the Nationals two lefties to go with Doolittle. Solis has pitched in eight postseason games over the past two seasons and factored prominently in consecutive Game 5 defeats despite a 3.18 ERA in those games. Romero was on the roster for this year’s National League Division Series against the Cubs, but didn’t pitch. Matt Grace also emerged as a reliable lefty capable of pitching multiple innings at a time, but not a shutdown type.
“We feel very comfortable with Madson and Doolittle. We really like the left-handed side of the bullpen that we have with our depth and that,” Rizzo said. “The bullpen is fairly well set up if we can get [Shawn] Kelley back and [Koda] Glover back — those are two other good pieces we really like.”
But, as Rizzo pointed out, the Nationals cannot rely on Kelley or Glover, whose seasons ended with significant arm trouble. Kelley succumbed to bone chips in his right elbow, and had an injection, not surgery, to address the problem. Kelley already has undergone two Tommy John surgeries, and is therefore treading into dangerous territory with more elbow trouble. But the Nationals believe he will be ready for Opening Day, and a person familiar with Kelley’s situation has said the same.
Glover, meanwhile, battled rotator cuff trouble that forced him to stop throwing for most of the second half, and was expected to keep him from picking up a ball until this month. The hard-throwing closer prospect has been unable to stay healthy in his brief professional career, though he will likely be a major part of the Nationals’ bullpen if he can.
Rizzo said he expects both righties to be ready for Opening Day, but admitted some caution.
“[We will look for right-handed relievers] because of the uncertainty of Kelley and Glover. We think they’re going to be healthy but we really don’t know,” Rizzo said. “So [a right-handed reliever] is something we would consider, more so than a left-handed reliever.”
The Nationals have interest in their other trade deadline acquisition, Brandon Kintzler, who is now a free agent. Unexpected stalwart Matt Albers also is a free agent, though the Nationals seem unlikely to pursue him after a career year that will likely earn him a significant raise.
One of the more talked-about relief options on this year’s market is World Series workhorse Brandon Morrow, though he likely will earn a risk-laden raise and perhaps price himself out of the Nationals’ allotted range. Veterans such as Steve Cishek, Pat Neshek, Juan Nicasio, Addison Reed, Bryan Shaw, and Anthony Swarzak match their profile better.
And if, in the end, Rizzo decides he can endure the hunt for a closer — or, perhaps more accurately, someone who has closed — former targets Wade Davis and Greg Holland are free agents, too.