What follows is purely speculative, the product of three weeks of October baseball defined by starters not starting and relievers providing starter-like efforts. What follows has neither been suggested to me by Washington Nationals officials, nor tossed out for consideration. What follows, therefore, could be entirely useless.
But as the Nationals consider potential improvements to their pitching staff next season, might it make sense to try to develop a Josh Hader-esque reliever, the kind who can go multiple shutdown innings in big spots, the kind who mollifies the pain of a short start? Might they have the arms to fill such a role on their roster already?
Some background: General Manager Mike Rizzo is a firm believer in starting pitching. Over and over, year after year, he outlines the same motto: With good starting pitching, everything is possible. With poor starting pitching, nothing is possible. Indeed, that his team has made the playoffs in years when its starters' ERA falls in the top five, and hasn’t when that ERA has fallen out of the top five, supports the point.
As the Nationals fell into mediocrity during the 2018 season, their starting rotation let them down. The middle of the rotation didn’t pitch to its capabilities. Injuries exposed the organization’s relative lack of starting pitching depth. Cumulative struggles put pressure on a bullpen not built to handle the workload thrust upon it. The priority for this organization this winter, Bryce Harper hype aside, must be to rebuild its rotation from top to bottom — meaning from the top of the rotation to the seventh or eighth man on the depth chart, the guys who always seem to matter one way or another, and certainly did in 2018.
But as important as rotation depth is, so is bullpen depth, and the Nationals need to rebuild that, too. Acquiring Kyle Barraclough for next to nothing represents a major step; he can provide steady middle relief. Sean Doolittle, whose 2019 contract option is all but certain to be picked up, will be there to close. Koda Glover emerged as a steady middle reliever by the end of the season. Matt Grace got key outs time and time again. Rizzo will almost certainly hunt another big name for the back end of the bullpen this offseason. But bullpens — particularly the most successful ones — are no longer built on the one-inning reliever.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox both turned to starters in relief during these playoffs. The Dodgers found success by converting former starter Kenta Maeda into a longer reliever. Hader was a season-altering force for the Milwaukee Brewers in what was often a multi-inning role. Andrew Miller and others before them changed seasons and affected October outcomes. The Nationals certainly plan to play in October in 2019.
So might the Nationals benefit from developing a few late-game stoppers who can carry a bigger workload? Shouldn’t they chase that hybrid type, both to take pressure off an aging rotation and to stabilize a bullpen that always seemed to have to stretch to cover the innings required of it?
Miller, whose season was truncated by injuries and who drew the Nationals' interest in the past, is a free agent this winter. But the Nationals might have the personnel to fill that hybrid role from within.
Their manager, Dave Martinez, hinted at the potential Jefry Rodriguez might find in such a role. The 25-year-old right-hander, who can touch 100 mph and improved his secondary stuff dramatically this season, has the ability to be a shutdown option late. Despite being a career starter, Rodriguez also showed no trouble handling unexpected bullpen duties early or late in games. Martinez once wondered aloud whether Rodriguez could grow into a multi-inning type in the Dellin Betances mold, a guy with a big frame and big stuff that plays up when needed for only a few innings at a time, instead of an entire start.
Rodriguez threw more than 152 innings between the minors and the big leagues in 2018 despite having thrown no more than 123 innings in any season of his professional career. He showed no signs of slowing because of the workload. His average fastball velocity — 95.4 mph — led all Nationals who threw at least 50 innings, though it was the 58th highest in baseball, which demonstrates another relative shortcoming on this staff. That velocity would probably improve, if only minimally, coming out of the bullpen full-time.
Rodriguez is not the only internal candidate for that hybrid role. Erick Fedde might fit well, too. Although Fedde made obvious strides this season, he struggled when facing hitters for a third time. Certainly, pitchers can improve on that, and Fedde acknowledged the need to find ways to push past the fifth inning. But he will be 26 on Opening Day, not at all past the point of continued growth but perhaps experienced enough to suggest that he might not be the kind of elite starter the Nationals hoped he would become when they drafted him in the first round in 2014.
The Nationals need nonelite starters, too. They need at least two steady starters to round out their rotation behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Tanner Roark, and Fedde and Joe Ross are strong candidates. But in Fedde, the Nationals might have a late-inning weapon in the making. The right-hander is probably the most competitive starter on their staff besides Scherzer, who has praised Fedde’s willingness to compete and improve, and thinks highly of his makeup.
With a fastball that sits in the mid-90s when he starts and an ever-improving mix of a curveball, slider, change-up and cutter, Fedde has plenty of weapons to start. But he might have exactly the weapons needed to compete in that hybrid role — most notably, the competitiveness to handle it. His sinking fastball probably would play harder in such a role. He could rely only on his best secondary stuff, and he would not have to plan to face a lineup multiple times.
On the other hand, Fedde is a Tommy John patient with a history of arm trouble, and the Nationals are particularly careful with their young pitchers. Rizzo tried moving Fedde to the bullpen in 2017 when his big league relievers were struggling, and he admitted later that was a mistake — though the mistake was converting him right back to a starter, forcing Fedde to switch roles and preventing rhythm.
And Rizzo has always prized starting pitching. If he thinks Fedde or Rodriguez could be a legitimate, long-standing part of this rotation, he will not risk moving them into that kind of hybrid role. That role is not his priority and never has been. Starting pitching always wins the day, as it has with Ross, despite a fastball-slider arsenal that has always seemed likely to be devastating from the bullpen. Rizzo has always stiff-armed the question about how Ross might fit in that role because of the value he feels he can provide to the rotation. Indeed, relievers can be unearthed. Starting pitchers must be grown.
In other words, a sudden Nationals pivot to developing a hybrid of their own seems unlikely. No one with the Nationals, besides Martinez in September, has even brought up such a thing. But it might be worth considering, particularly if Rodriguez, Fedde or others do not feel like the immediate answers for the back of the 2019 rotation — particularly for a team with a pitching staff in need of renovation.