The help has arrived, and it has arrived early. Now, go get more of it.
Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo’s latest move to improve his team’s bullpen — and, therefore, improve a team that is ailing and sputtering even as it pursues its fifth division title in seven years — might be better than those that preceded it, even though a few of those worked out splendidly.
Kelvin Herrera will help the Nationals. He will lessen the burden on Ryan Madson and eliminate high-leverage situations for Shawn Kelley — maybe even eliminating Kelley altogether. Justin Miller, Tim Collins, Sammy Solis — all the gassed Nats relievers should, as Madson said Monday night, extend “welcoming arms” to the new charge.
This season with the only team he has ever known, the Kansas City Royals, Herrera faced 95 batters — and walked two. Opposing hitters have a .506 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against him; MLB average is .722. He was the right guy at a perfect time — six weeks before the trade deadline, which means six weeks of the season when the rest of the Nationals will have a less stressful workload.
But it says here that the Nats will need more. Not for now, necessarily. But for October. Or maybe, if a few things don’t straighten themselves out in health and performance, to even reach October.
Two areas to think about: catcher and starting pitcher. One way to think, in either case: large.
Consider the catching situation. Matt Wieters is out till, say, August following surgery on his left hamstring. Pedro Severino and Spencer Kieboom, the two kids the Nationals are employing in Wieters’s stead, are slugging .241 and .222, respectively. Washington’s catchers collectively have a .574 OPS — last in the National League. An upgrade is in order.
Now, you could say that Wieters will provide an upgrade. That’s debatable, of course, given his .632 OPS of a year ago. But even if you believe Wieters’s return will prevent the catcher’s spot in the order from being a black hole, that black hole still exists for another month-and-a-half. An offense that has a sputtering Bryce Harper and a working-himself-into-shape Daniel Murphy and an absent Ryan Zimmerman can’t really afford a spot in the order that produces zippo.
So, then, the potential targets. The obvious choice is Miami’s J.T. Realmuto. He’s 27. He is under club control through 2020. The Nationals have long liked him. And no catcher with at least 100 plate appearances this year can match his .895 OPS.
The combination of all those things — he’s in his prime, he solves the catching spot for a few years, he is performing well — means Realmuto would cost a lot. Not Victor Robles or Juan Soto — and let’s be honest, this entire space should have been saved as an homage to Soto’s homer against the Yankees on Monday.
But catching. We’re talking about catching. You prefer something cheaper than Realmuto? How about Tampa Bay’s Wilson Ramos?
Who am I kidding? Tampa Bay’s Wilson Ramos? No, that’s Washington’s Wilson Ramos. The Buffalo was a mainstay here, one of Rizzo’s original heists (when he sent rental reliever Matt Capps to Minnesota for a catcher who was then 22). But strip that emotion away, and consider: He’s a free agent after this season, he has a .767 OPS — and he could be a cheaper upgrade. Plus, he knows most of the starting staff.
Oh, right: The rotation. The current situation is that Jeremy Hellickson is likely to return from a hamstring injury the next time it’s his turn. Still, that situation — nine starts to a 2.28 ERA — has to be evaluated as found money. Stephen Strasburg is out indefinitely with inflammation in his right shoulder. That’s the injury that should have the most impact here — not necessarily because Strasburg won’t be back to pitch in a pennant race with division-leading Atlanta, but because he’s not here now, and they must find quality innings from . . . somewhere.
Erick Fedde, who started against and lost to the Yankees on Monday night, has been used in spot duty. The Nats believe in him long term. But long term isn’t when they need help.
Except . . . they do. Think of a potential move for a starting pitcher thusly: Gio Gonzalez is a free agent after this year. They need to fill in the fifth spot after A.J. Cole flamed out and Hellickson saved them — at least to this point. Even if Fedde is ready to take the ball every fifth day in the big leagues in 2019, they have an opening for a starting pitcher on next year’s roster.
Thus, a trade for a starter should be something like the moves Houston and the Yankees made last year for Justin Verlander and Sonny Gray, respectively: Look for players who could plug a hole this year and next. Keep an eye on how Marcus Stroman performs as he returns to Toronto’s rotation. Monitor Chris Archer with the Rays as he works through an abdominal injury. Think, even, about Cole Hamels — who Rizzo once called “fake tough” and worse for throwing at Bryce Harper. Hamels costs $20 million for 2019 if his contract option vests.
Be creative. Be bold. Be aggressive. When the Nationals traded for Doolittle and Madson last summer, it fixed their bullpen in the moment and for the next offseason. That’s possible with this rotation, too.
About the bullpen: Man, does Herrera fit. When the Royals won back-to-back pennants and the 2015 World Series, they did so on the back of a bullpen that, most nights, went Herrera to setup man Wade Davis to closer Greg Holland — until Holland got hurt and Davis became the closer in their final postseason together.
“I was born and raised as a player here,” Herrera told reporters in Kansas City on Monday night, “and this is tough right now.”
That’s how you want to raise players in your organization. You want it to be devastating for them to leave. The Nationals have to understand they’re getting a shellshocked player, someone who is leaving a place he calls home. There may be an adjustment period. But he can pitch — in any situation. In 28 2/3 postseason innings, he has 38 strikeouts and a 1.26 ERA. His velocity has fallen off slightly from those days. But he still gets outs.
In part because relievers are the most volatile commodities in baseball, Rizzo has often had to fix his bullpen in midseason. In 2015, he brought in Jonathan Papelbon. That didn’t work, but it was also a team that had health and chemistry problems. In 2016, it was Mark Melancon. That worked. In 2017, it was Doolittle and Madson. That also worked — and with Herrera, he’s strengthened that mix.
The challenge, now, is to push for more. The three prospects sent to Kansas City for Herrera didn’t begin to crack the Nats’ top tier. There are still ways to improve this team — one that isn’t clicking, that has some holes, but can still win whatever’s out there. Monday was a start. Let’s see what the next few weeks have in store.