“It’s asset allocation. How much are you going to spend on the bullpen? As opposed to the other parts of your roster,” Rizzo said in mid-November. “We have plenty of holes to fill this year, and we’ll utilize the process that we’ve used throughout the years and see if we can construct a team that can contend for a championship.”
There you go. Gray area. It would be rare, maybe even monumental, for Rizzo to publicly declare a strategy before utilizing it. A GM’s job is to hold his cards closely until the moment they hit the table. But when discussing this same concept in August, on the heels of the trade deadline, Rizzo gave a tight window into his thinking on how the best bullpens are constructed.
“Part of our plan often is we budget for trade deadline acquisitions and we plan for it, and oftentimes it’s needed because of the uncertainty of bullpens in general,” Rizzo said then. “I think that it kind of behooves you not to put all your eggs in one basket in the beginning of the year, and kind of get the bullpen you want, then see if there are any tweaks you can make at the deadline.”
There is already a stark difference between this offseason and last year’s, which ultimately led the Nationals into a World Series-winning season. By last Thanksgiving, the Nationals had traded for reliever Kyle Barraclough, signed another, Trevor Rosenthal, to a one-year, $7 million deal — that was flush with incentives — and inked veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to a two-year contract. They blitzed a slow market, turned it into a market inefficiency of sorts and used that to add two setup men to pair with closer Sean Doolittle.
Now, a year later, they have to make a move. Many teams across the league haven’t either. Rizzo wouldn’t admit that last winter lent a cautionary tale — and maybe it didn’t, in the end — but the results suggest that. Only two members of the Nationals’ Opening Day bullpen wound up pitching in the playoffs or World Series. The other relievers were cobbled together in scrapheap signings and deadline trades. That’s how Rizzo showed his hand.
Rosenthal was a disaster from the start, needing four appearances and 48 pitches to record his first out of the season. The Nationals signed him after he missed a full season following Tommy John surgery, and he never discovered command of his high-90s fastball and biting slider. He had a 22.74 ERA in just 6 ⅓ innings, when Washington outright released him in June. They ate $8 million once they did.
Barraclough wasn’t much better, lasting 33 appearances before he was designated for assignment. He had a 6.66 ERA when he departed, and was later picked up, then later released, by the San Francisco Giants. And Tony Sipp, Rizzo’s third offseason addition to the bullpen, was designated for assignment on Aug. 2 to make room for the deadline acquisitions. Sipp, a 36-year-old lefty on a one-year deal, had a 4.71 ERA and battled injuries throughout the summer.
Reinforcements came with three July 31 trades, and the Nationals’ new-look bullpen had Daniel Hudson, Hunter Strickland and lefty Roenis Elías. Rizzo was on a tight budget, with the competitive balance tax threshold approaching, and only Hudson became a key reliever down the stretch. But Rizzo’s guiding principles were clear: He knows how volatile relievers can be from year to year. He learned that firsthand, in the hardest way, when Rosenthal, Barraclough and Sipp flopped. He prefers to assess relievers in-season, with fresh data and video to parse through, and did that when he flipped his bullpen before the pennant race.
So what could that mean for the Nationals moving forward?
The reliever market is heating up, and has been thinned considerably by the Atlanta Braves. They signed Will Smith, who was considered the best available reliever, to a three-year, $40 million deal in mid-November. They locked up Chris Martin, whom they traded for last July, to a two-year, $14 million deal a few days later. Lefty Drew Pomeranz became a top remaining option, but then he signed with the San Diego Padres on Wednesday. The Nationals were interested in Pomeranz when exploring options last July.
That leaves Washington with a near-bare cupboard heading into December. Doolittle returns, as could Wander Suero, Tanner Rainey, Strickland, Elías and veteran long man Javy Guerra. But the Nationals will need better parts to avoid what happened last season, when the bullpen threatened to crater a run before it began. If Rizzo repeats what he did last year and does most of his bullpen-building midstream, he still has to have a functional group by spring.
Or maybe 2019, and the title it ended with, showed he doesn’t. That’s the balance Rizzo has to figure out — and fast.