Consider this scenario for a moment, for maybe the 100th time this year, before the Washington Nationals start a weekend series in Phoenix and a two-month march to the finish line: A Nationals starter goes six innings and exits with a lead. There are six outs to get until closer Sean Doolittle enters the game. Who comes out of the bullpen?
That question has been complicated since late March, through the following four months and even through Wednesday as the Nationals added three relievers before the trade deadline. Now it’s complicated for a different reason. It’s not that Daniel Hudson, Roenis Elías and Hunter Strickland, Washington’s deadline acquisitions, form a magic pill for a bad bullpen. But with more capable arms, and more experience, Manager Dave Martinez will only have more ways to build a bridge between his rotation and Doolittle.
It has been a daily puzzle all season — an unsolvable puzzle, at that — so General Manager Mike Rizzo aimed to make it easier with three low-cost moves. The coming weeks will show how they’ll change roles in the bullpen, how they’ll shift workloads and whether Rizzo was able to fix a problem that has nagged the Nationals for too long. And it’s up to Martinez, often ridiculed for his bullpen management, to figure out where everyone fits.
“The fact that we gave up nobody in our top 20 prospect list was important to us. We stayed under the [competitive balance tax threshold], which was important to us,” Rizzo said Wednesday, once the deadline passed. “But most important was that we’ve improved our baseball team with three really good relief pitchers.”
That last part of Rizzo’s summary is what will echo into the rest of this year, and beyond that, and into however this season is remembered. The Nationals climbed all the way back into the race despite their bullpen. Now they are 6½ games back in the National League East, in the NL’s second wild-card spot, and have a good chance of reaching the postseason. Few will remember which prospects were traded Wednesday, or that Washington stayed within its tight budget, or that all three trades happened in a 30-minute span that may change this team’s fate.
They’ll only remember whether the moves work, and that test begins Friday against the Arizona Diamondbacks. First the Nationals have to clear one more spot from the 25-man roster if all of Hudson, Elías and Strickland are joining the roster ahead of first pitch. They have designated Javy Guerra and Michael Blazek for assignment to clear space for two players. Since Elías is left-handed and Washington has three lefties in the bullpen already, Tony Sipp or Matt Grace could be designated, too. Wander Suero and Tanner Rainey have minor league options, but it doesn’t seem like they are going anywhere.
By that logic, the bullpen is at eight arms heading into the stretch run: Doolittle, Fernando Rodney, Suero, Rainey, Hudson, Strickland, Elías and Grace or Sipp. Before the deadline, in his ideal game, Martinez used Suero in the seventh, Rodney in the eighth and Doolittle in the ninth to protect a lead. Rainey mixed into the sixth, if necessary, or later innings if Suero or Rodney were unavailable. But the other four pitchers were rarely used in high-pressure situations, or at all, forcing Martinez to ask a lot of Suero, Rodney and Doolittle, who leads the NL with 42 games finished.
That’s where the bullpen calculus is most likely to change. Better options should help keep everybody fresh.
“Every time I go into a game now, I’m setting a new high in games pitched, in innings pitched as a National,” Doolittle said Wednesday, adding that Suero has been particularly taxed this season. “So we’re all feeling it a little bit. It’s that time of the year. It will be good to have some new toys.”
That doesn’t mean Hudson, Elías and Strickland will seize high-leverage roles from Rodney, Suero and Rainey right away. Martinez could still use Rodney in the eighth, for as long as that works, and Suero in the seventh if he has really turned a corner. Rainey, when accurate, has swing-and-miss stuff that plays in any spot. But the biggest benefit here is that Martinez shouldn’t have to run out the same plan every single night. He shouldn’t have to cross his fingers and pitch Rodney in a third consecutive game, or ride Suero into the ground, or use Doolittle in a four-run game. He should have a lot more flexibility.
Each of Hudson, Elías and Strickland has experience closing games, something Rizzo liked when scouring the market. Strickland has the highest upside, given past results, but has missed most of this year with a strained right lat muscle. Elías has 14 saves this season, albeit for a non-contending team, and has to again figure out how to handle lefties, who have a .990 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against him. Rizzo is banking on his career splits coming to the surface. And Hudson promises to be the steadiest of the three, a 10-year veteran with starter experience, now clicking as a back-end reliever at 32 years old.
Martinez discussed Hudson on Wednesday, before the other two trades were finalized, and praised his ability to strand inherited runners. The manager has had trouble finding someone to do that this season and prefers Rainey and Suero at the start of innings. Hudson could now assume responsibility when rallies are mounting and need to be killed.
But after that, Martinez is more likely to go by matchups and feel than assign specific roles. The eighth could be handled by committee — with Rodney, Hudson and Strickland in the mix — and the rest will fall around that inning, fluidly, from one night to the next. That’s a long way from when Martinez had to follow a set formula and hope it worked. Maybe hope has been removed from the equation altogether.
Or maybe that’s still too big of an ask.