WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Kyle Barraclough was in Europe with his girlfriend when he was traded from the Miami Marlins to the Washington Nationals, so communication was tough at the start.
He did not have service as his agent and family tried to notify him of the deal. He thought something was wrong when his phone was flooded with texts and voice mails, and he was relieved when he was only traded from the basement of the National League East to somewhere around the top. Then he and Nationals Manager Dave Martinez had trouble connecting until January, which is when they finally got to chat about the right-handed reliever joining the franchise.
So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Barraclough has not been told what that role could be for the coming season. It also wouldn’t be surprising if the Nationals don’t know quite yet.
“I think what I’ve been doing the last three years. Set up,” Barraclough said of what he envisions for himself. “Obviously, Sean [Doolittle]’s been doing great the last — his whole career, pretty much. It will be different for me to kind of see that. Last year there was obviously a lot of role changes in the bullpen and a lot of things going on over [in Miami].”
Barraclough had a great start to 2018, finishing the first half with a 1.28 ERA, nine saves and 10 strikeouts per nine across 42⅓ innings. But he dropped off in the second half, posting a 13.50 ERA in 13.1 innings while also making a short trip to the disabled list with a right shoulder injury. That is part of why the Nationals were able to acquire him for not much return — $1 million in international slot money — and why he is not already penciled in as one of the team’s setup men. The bullpen is anchored by Doolittle, who was an all-star closer before injuring his left foot last season, and the rest of the duties seem to be there for the taking.
Trevor Rosenthal had back-to-back 40-save seasons in 2014 and 2015, but signed with the Nationals this winter after taking a year off to rehab from Tommy John surgery. Koda Glover, Matt Grace, Wander Suero and Sammy Solis all have something to prove in spring training. So does Barraclough. His roster spot may not be on the line. But a high-leverage role is.
“You’ve got your back end of the bullpen guys, guys that pitch in high leverage. For me, that’s the biggest thing,” Martinez said Thursday when asked if, in a perfect world, his relievers would all have specific duties. “The other guys understand what their roles are. With all the information out there, you want to put them in roles where you know they can get outs and succeed. We’ll have conversations throughout spring training and as we get closer to the season, which guys we can identify and see the guys who are going to pitch in the back end of the bullpen.”
That indicates that Martinez isn’t necessarily looking to delineate a closer, eighth-inning guy, seventh-inning guy, long man, and so on, but rather to sort his relievers into two categories: high-leverage relievers and others. He shuffled relievers for much of last season, but that was mostly because of injuries to Doolittle, Kelvin Herrera and Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler and Shawn Kelley being shipped off at the July 31 trade deadline.
Doolittle is already carved in for one high-leverage role this season, as he is expected to pitch the ninth inning unless he needs a game off. Rosenthal also has a chance to pitch in high-leverage situations, likely as seventh- or eighth-inning option, depending on matchup. After that, nothing appears clear with pitchers and catchers going through their second official workout Friday.
Barraclough, 28, did not attribute last season’s struggles to switching roles so often. He instead pointed to long stretches without command and how he let small mistakes fester into tall mental hurdles. But he did say a defined role would be ideal, as almost any reliever would prefer. He moonlit as the Marlins’ closer for some of the first half, was bumped down to the eighth inning toward the middle of the season and finished the year getting most of his reps in the seventh. The Marlins weren’t ahead in many games throughout the year. They also had players rotating in and out of the clubhouse as the summer wore on.
“Really haven’t had a set closer in Miami since [AJ] Ramos,” Barraclough said, referring to the 2016 all-star. “It’s nice to have that guy that’s just back there anchoring the bullpen.”
The idea there is that Doolittle is set for the ninth and the other pieces will be laid out in front of him. With the ever-increasing presence of analytics, and never-ending search for the right matchup, Martinez won’t have the same pitchers throw the same innings all of the time. The Nationals’ bullpen is not constructed that way. But the coming weeks will help the Nationals see who’s better suited for low-pressure situations and who they can trust in big spots.
If Barraclough is to prove himself as the latter, he will need to solve his command issues, build off his mid-90s fastball and keep refining a change-up that emerged as a third pitch last season. Then he may find himself with a role — or at least something close to it.