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Nationals may not make another bullpen move before spring training

Justin Miller could fit into many roles for the Nationals' bullpen in 2019. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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It was the first transaction in an offseason that now brims with trades and deals made by the Washington Nationals: They acquired reliever Kyle Barraclough from the Miami Marlins for $1 million of international slot money.

That happened Oct. 10, and it seemed, with the start of free agency still weeks away, that the trade would be the first of many moves aimed at reshaping a bullpen racked by injuries and inconsistency in 2018. Then the Nationals agreed to a deal with setup man Trevor Rosenthal on Oct. 31, making him the first free agent to come off the market, and their plans to stockpile relievers appeared even more clear. General Manager Mike Rizzo often says, when asked about pitching depth, that a team can never have enough arms. The Nationals are sometimes hard to peg this time of year — they cast a mile-wide net, linger with big-name free agents, are always looking to build and win — but if Rizzo has a guiding principle, part of his approach that threads through all of these winters, it’s his belief that winning starts on the mound and many players are needed to carry out that vision.

And yet the Nationals have not made any major additions to their bullpen since acquiring Rosenthal on a one-year deal that guarantees him $7 million. Maybe that is because they, like the rest of baseball, are staring at a frozen, flooded market of relievers and waiting for it to crack. Or maybe, as one person with knowledge of their plans believes, the Nationals are comfortable with what they have and are not necessarily looking to make another bullpen-related move before spring training begins in mid-February.

If that is the case, and the Nationals carry seven relievers that are already in the organization, they are looking at a bullpen of closer Sean Doolittle, Rosenthal, Barraclough, Koda Glover, Matt Grace, Justin Miller and likely one of Sammy Solis, Wander Suero, Jimmy Cordero or veteran Vidal Nuno, whom they signed to a minor league deal last week. Barraclough’s immediate future is a bit uncertain; he and the Nationals were unable to settle before the deadline to exchange arbitration figures and could go to a hearing in February. Barraclough is asking for $2 million, and the Nationals have offered $1.725 million. Miller, a 31-year-old right-hander with one more year of team control, is not a lock to make the Opening Day roster but should have the inside track. And if he and Barraclough are both part of the bullpen to start the season, giving the Nationals two right-handed middle-relief options, there is a growing need to have a left-hander in the seventh and final bullpen spot.

Within the organization, that thinking would give Solis or Nuno an edge on relievers such as Suero or Cordero, who both flashed their potential and a fair share of growing pains last season. Solis could have been non-tendered by the Nationals in November but was instead kept on a one-year deal worth $850,000. Solis is out of options, meaning the Nationals cannot send him down without placing him on waivers, and he will need to prove plenty to make the team. He had a 6.41 ERA in 56 appearances last season, and left-handed hitters hit .329 off him with a .993 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. At the moment, Grace is the Nationals’ only situational left-hander. Solis’s recent numbers do not inspire confidence that he could be a second.

It is also unclear whether the Nationals envision a role like that for Nuno, should the 31-year-old journeyman impress in spring training. He will make $1.3 million if he makes the majors, according to a person with knowledge of his deal, and can opt out of his contract March 27 or June 15 if he is not on the 25-man roster. He had a 1.64 ERA in 33 innings for the Tampa Bay Rays last season, all out of the bullpen, but was a starter earlier in his career. A person with knowledge of Nuno’s negotiations with the Nationals said the team is not viewing him solely as a starter or reliever at this point, and that they see him as a pitcher who could eat innings and step in for a spot start if needed.

The three remaining question marks on the Nationals' roster, after moves shored up most of their rotation, the catcher position, second base and the bench, are a fifth starter, that lefty specialist and, though the least pressing, a “long man” to make multi-inning, low-leverage relief appearances. That could be Miller or Suero. Or it could be Nuno, who made eight multi-inning appearances last season and could moonlight as a matchup lefty if he is throwing the ball well. Left-handed hitters batted .226 against Nuno in 35 plate appearances in 2018, while righties hit .189 in 99 plate appearances.

But if the Nationals do dip into free agency one last time and come out with a proven reliever, Solis, Nuno, Suero and Cordero could see their cases crumble. The Nationals are believed to be staying in contact with a number of low-cost relievers, as is their way, but have not progressed in discussions with any particular player. Cot’s Baseball Contracts projects that the Nationals are about $11 million below the competitive balance tax threshold — set at $206 million for 2019 — meaning they could spend a bit more this offseason and still save for possible in-season acquisitions. If any additional spending is not aimed at Bryce Harper, whose free agency seems to be tilting elsewhere as it comes to a head, the bullpen does seem like a logical investment option.

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