The plan was scattered around the Washington Nationals’ facility every day, some parts privately, others in public, everything laid out neatly on white pieces of paper.
Manager Dave Martinez often carried his sheet with him, from his office to interviews and then out to the field, so he knew which relievers were scheduled to pitch throughout spring training in February and March. Then-pitching coach Derek Lilliquist kept a big spreadsheet, which often evolved across six week, and distributed innings to the members of his bullpen. And each morning, once exhibitions began, a list was tacked to a cork board in the Nationals clubhouse. The list showed who was going to throw in that day’s game. The list set the plan into motion.
That is partly how the Nationals prepared their major league-worst bullpen for the regular season. But after that bullpen stumbled into Opening Day, then greatly struggled across the next five weeks, their level of preparedness has been doubted by some in the organization who wonder whether the plan included enough back-to-back appearances, communication and overall attention to detail. Lilliquist was fired May 2, and in an impromptu news conference that night, General Manager Mike Rizzo cited “preparation issues” as one of the reasons for Lilliquist’s dismissal.
Rizzo maintained in a radio interview that week that he was referring to both the bullpen and starting rotation. Yet it was the bullpen that left the Nationals in an early hole and, along with a rash of injuries, has contributed to a 16-24 record at the quarter mark of the season.
That bullpen has stabilized for short stretches, such as when it threw 16 consecutive scoreless innings before Lilliquist was let go, but still is last in baseball with a 6.34 ERA. Lilliquist was fired, in part, because something had to change once the relievers were hit hard for a full month. But if there’s any belief that a third of the Nationals were not put in position to succeed right away, where does the blame fall?
“One thing I learned about being the manager — and learned fast last season — is that I have to be responsible for everything,” Martinez said in an interview in late March. “That means not just managing games but what is going on with my coaches, the cooks in the kitchen, traveling, equipment, everything. I need to know what’s going on and take care of it. And that can be a challenge for sure.”
On Saturday in Los Angeles, Martinez expressed confidence in how the bullpen was prepared to start the year. Many of the team’s relievers echoed his thoughts. It is a veteran group, and even if Lilliquist set the agenda, all felt responsible for knowing what they need ahead of a season.
Relievers have it harder than starters and position players during spring training. Starters get a controlled workload, have it increase as the year draws closer and follow a detailed schedule. Position players get in for a few innings, take two or three at-bats and are finished for the day. But relievers are often squeezed in, often against minor league players, and the spring scenarios can’t come close to mimicking the season’s high-leverage situations. They also rarely throw to starting catchers in the lead-up to the season. Beyond that, travel days and longer appearances for starters begin to limit relievers’ opportunities as Opening Day nears.
“It’s sort of like controlled chaos,” said closer Sean Doolittle, who has a 1.00 ERA and six saves in as many opportunities. “But we as players still have a lot of input in what we do. It’s the typical life of a reliever, things being up in the air a lot of the time.”
But the confusion lies in why Washington’s relievers didn’t throw in back-to-back games more before the season began. Among the seven relievers who had a chance of making the Opening Day roster — not counting Tony Sipp, who signed in mid-March and was on a different track — only Doolittle and Kyle Barraclough pitched back-to-backs during spring training. Trevor Rosenthal, Wander Suero, Matt Grace, Justin Miller and Austen Williams all did not.
Rosenthal pitched his first back-to-back in the second and third games of the season and gave up five total earned runs. Miller first went back-to-back April 3 and 4 and was solid until his arm tired. Grace almost immediately pitched in three straight games between April 2 and 4. It is a critical part of a reliever’s role — recovering to appear in consecutive contests — and yet it was mostly left out of Washington’s preseason blueprint.
That was not abnormal across the league, however; many teams had relievers take light loads and do extra work in side sessions or minor league exhibitions. The San Francisco Giants have one of the league’s best bullpens and had just one of their expected major league relievers throw a back-to-back this spring. The same went for the Chicago Cubs, who have an above-average bullpen. Still, the Nationals’ approach was questioned internally both before and after the season brought unwanted results.
“I don’t think the way we started had to do with preparation issues, to be honest. Guys knew what they needed to do,” said Barraclough, whom the Nationals acquired in a trade with the Miami Marlins in October. “We came into the year with a plan of what we wanted to happen, and all that stuff can go away if one guy falls out of line. Rosie struggled a little bit, and [Martinez] had to shuffle us all around, and it took us a couple weeks to figure out those roles. That went for everyone. Myself included.”
Rosie is Rosenthal, who was signed to a one-year deal in October to be the Nationals’ new setup man. That hasn’t worked out to this point; Rosenthal made four appearances and threw 38 pitches before even recording an out. His command was gone after missing a full year recovering from Tommy John surgery. He became unusable for Martinez, and as a result, Doolittle was asked to do more, and the eighth inning terrorized Washington. Rosenthal has a 36.00 ERA and is doing a minor league rehab stint with the Class AA Harrisburg Senators. A lot of the bullpen’s problems can be traced back to his right arm.
But not all of them. A single block doesn’t take down a Jenga tower — at least when the tower’s at full strength — and everyone besides Doolittle has been hit hard. Barraclough allowed the first seven runners he inherited to score in March and April. Suero, Grace and Sipp, who is on the 10-day injured list with a strained oblique, all have ERAs over 6.00. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde, both 25-year-old starters, are relievers for now because Washington still needs something to click. The bullpen is why the Nationals were chasing this season almost as soon as it began.
It’s as if they may have been behind schedule from the start.
“In hindsight, you can try to come up with a lot of reasons for why the season began how it did for us,” Barraclough said. “The one that doesn’t change is that we just didn’t do our jobs.”