The Washington Nationals' first bullpen-building move came Oct. 10, with the playoffs underway without them, when they traded international slot money to the Miami Marlins for reliever Kyle Barraclough. The second came Oct. 31, just the third day of free agency, when they signed veteran Trevor Rosenthal as a late-inning option. The Nationals wasted no time in adding to a bullpen that was taxed by injuries throughout 2018, establishing it as a clear priority in a critical offseason.
And they may not be finished.
“We’re looking for value,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said last week at baseball’s annual general mangers' meetings in Carlsbad, Calif. “We thought Barraclough was a big value to us, and Rosenthal, so we thought we saw two values and that’s why we jumped on it, and we’ll continue to look for good players who fit for us, and you can never have enough pitching, starter or reliever.”
If the 2019 season started now, the Nationals' bullpen would seem close to set (though a few spots should still be up for grabs during spring training). Teams typically carry seven relievers, and the Nationals would likely go with all-star closer Sean Doolittle, Koda Glover, Rosenthal, Barraclough, Matt Grace and Justin Miller if they had to form a 25-man roster. That leaves just one open spot but still a few needs to address. And there is also a good chance the Nationals fill that final bullpen slot with 27-year-old right-hander Wander Suero, who showed promise across 47 2/3 innings last season.
One of the potential needs, if the Nationals continue to add relievers, is another left-hander to pair with Grace. The 29-year-old is coming off a strong season and should be a solid strategic commodity moving forward. He is also the only left-handed pitcher in that group of six outside of Doolittle, and he was joined by lefties Tim Collins and Sammy Solis throughout 2018. Collins is a free agent and does not seem likely to return. Solis is arbitration eligible and, after finishing with a 6.41 ERA in 2018, could be non-tendered this offseason if the Nationals decide it is time to part ways. That means the Nationals could seek another left-hander outside the organization, or take the risk of leaning on Grace in most high-leverage situations against left-handed hitters before the ninth inning.
Next is another late-inning reliever, which is not a pressing need but could be something the Nationals explore this winter. Glover missed most of 2018 with a shoulder injury, but once he settled in he was sharp in September and could be a reliable late-inning option to set up Doolittle in the ninth. Barraclough figures to be a middle-inning arm but could bump up to higher-leverage situations if he has a strong start to the season. That makes Rosenthal the unknown variable in the equation, because he is coming off a year away from baseball as he rehabbed from Tommy John elbow surgery.
If Rosenthal returns to what he was, or something close to the pitcher who posted back-to-back 45-plus-save seasons in 2014 and 2015, he could be a strong setup man on a one-year, $7 million deal with a vesting option for 2020. But if the surgery left him without some of the velocity or command that once made him an all-star reliever, expectations may need to be lowered. And that is where adding another possible setup man, either off the free agent market or by trade, could be necessary.
"There’s no question,” Rizzo said when asked if there was any risk or worry in giving Rosenthal a major role post-surgery. “We did all our background check on the Tommy John surgery. We did our research on who did the surgery. We did all our medical updates. We’ve seen him pitch recently. We saw him through his last pitch before he shut it down for the season.
“He’s in normal offseason workout mode, not rehab mode, which is good, and we’ve seen him in the past,” Rizzo continued. “That had a big part of it. All-star-caliber guy in the past. We deem him healthy both medically and in the eye of the scout. We feel good about it. But yeah, there’s always risk when coming off Tommy John. There’s an 85 percent success rate, but that’s a 15 percent non-success rate.”
The final hole in the Nationals' bullpen, as constructed, is a traditional “long man.” This is often a converted starting pitcher who can eat a bulk of low-leverage innings, usually when his team falls behind by a lot of runs. The Nationals do not have an obvious pitcher for this role, though those innings could go to a mix of Miller and Suero if another option does not emerge. There is also a way the Nationals could give themselves a long man and maybe address other needs in the process.
There was talk during the season, however casual, of turning starter Jefry Rodriguez into a reliever. Rodriguez, 25, made eight starts in 2018 and finished with a 2-2 record and 6.75 ERA. But he had a 2.70 ERA in 13 1/3 innings as a reliever, a notably small sample size, but proof that his hard fastball and biting curve could work coming out of the bullpen. Nationals Manager Dave Martinez theorized in September that Rodriguez could ramp his fastball into the high-90s if he were only throwing an inning or two, and he even likened Rodriguez to Dellin Betances, the New York Yankees' flame-throwing reliever who went to four straight All-Star Games from 2014 to 2017.
Martinez said during the last week of the season that Rodriguez will remain a starter for the time being. Rizzo said last week that he expects the same. Yet moving Rodriguez to the bullpen would give the Nationals a multi-inning option, and maybe even their own version of a valued hybrid reliever — think Josh Hader or Andrew Miller or something of the sort — who can be plugged into any situation.
“Jefry’s certainly got good stuff, multi-innings, rubber arm, can bounce back,” Rizzo said. “I still see him as a real good starting piece for us. To me, the industry, us as an industry, we develop more relievers than starters. I like to get pitchers that have the capacity to start every opportunity to start, keep them stretched out.”
That leaves the Nationals to assess their bullpen as is, to decide if it’s good and versatile enough, or make a plan to add the final piece from elsewhere.