Here are the facts from the Washington Nationals’ weekend sweep at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds: Friday night, they led in the sixth and lost. Saturday afternoon, they led in the eighth and lost. Sunday, they were tied in the seventh and lost . Their bullpen pitched 111 /3 innings in three games and gave up 14 runs.
So, hmmmmm. Let’s see. As June arrived, we know their bullpen is taxed — and it could be taxed more Tuesday with a doubleheader against Toronto, one made necessary by a Monday night rainout. We can’t assign too much meaning to one lousy series, small sample size and all. But . . .
“They’re past the honeymoon period now,” said closer Drew Storen, who amounts to the mainstay in the Washington pen. “This is the wear-and-tear time.”
So where might the Nationals find a reliever who could help reduce the wear and tear on each and every pitcher who trudges out past the outfield walls to watch the game through a chain-link fence each night?
We’ll get to that. First, how they got here.
Consider the following five names: Tyler Clippard, Rafael Soriano, Ross Detwiler, Jerry Blevins and Craig Stammen. They have two things in common: They all were members of the 2014 Nationals’ bullpen, and none is currently slated to throw a pitch for Washington over the remainder of this season. Say what you want about Soriano, who most people wanted to run out of town, or Detwiler, who clearly needed a change of scenery. Those five pitchers combined to throw 3251 /3 innings last season — 70 percent of all the relief work the Nationals needed in 2014.
Stammen, of course, is hurt — out for the season with a torn right flexor — and his loss is sneakily important. Detwiler, Clippard and Blevins were traded and Soriano was allowed to walk as a free agent. He remains unemployed.
This is in no way an argument that last year’s pen should have remained together.
Indeed, the trade of Clippard — by far the most controversial move in the bunch — yielded the man who has hit second or third in 35 games thus far, infielder Yunel Escobar. Clippard, too, is scheduled to be a free agent at season’s end, while Escobar is signed for next year at $7 million with a club option for 2017 at the same (very reasonable) rate. Clippard will make $8.3 million this year, and even though he was reliable and such a fan favorite and . . .
Wait a second. There’s your solution.
Trade for Clippard!
Okay, okay. This might not be necessary. Yet. Casey Janssen, signed as a free agent essentially to take Clippard’s place as the eighth-inning man, is coming back from a shoulder problem that cost him the first month-and-a-half. Yes he got rocked for four runs in Saturday’s 6-2 loss to the Reds, but his first three outings were clean: eight men up, eight men retired. As Manager Matt Williams said Monday, “He’s itching to get the ball again.”
When might that be? Right now, that’s part of the Nationals’ problem. Other than Storen, who leads the National League with 16 saves and has a 0.84 ERA, there are no defined roles. The pitchers who have, to this point, most frequently auditioned to set up Storen have been right-handers Aaron Barrett and Blake Treinen and lefty Matt Thornton.
But when will they pitch? Barrett has thrown six times in the sixth and seventh and a dozen times in the eighth. Thornton has appeared eight times in the sixth and seventh and 11 times in the eighth. Treinen got an early-season look at being the eighth-inning guy, where he pitched seven times, but has appeared nine times in the sixth and seventh. On a given night, you don’t know.
“This year we’ve had a lot of different guys in a lot of different roles,” Barrett said. “It is nice when you know exactly when you’re going to pitch. But that’s part of what we’re going through right now. . . . For me, I know when the phone rings and they call my name, I’m ready for whatever role it is.”
When Clippard was around, the phone didn’t even have to ring. You knew when he would pitch. Last year, he appeared 75 times. Five came in extra innings. Of the remaining appearances, 64 came in the eighth inning.
“You always want to put the players in position to succeed in whatever position that is,” Williams said. “So defined roles are great.”
Putting players in position to succeed becomes more difficult when the bullpen is under duress. A fallout from Stephen Strasburg’s one-inning start Friday night — when he came out with a stiff neck — is that the bullpen had to eat those innings. And that came at the start of a stretch when the Nationals play 23 games in 24 days.
Clippard has pitched well enough for Oakland, posting a 2.42 ERA over 22
What might half a season of Clippard cost? Certainly not three years of Escobar. A prospect, to be sure, but we’re constantly told how deep the Washington farm system is.
There’s time for this to sort itself out. The Nationals haven’t played a game in June, and they’re in first place. The bullpen has had far more good nights than bad, and if Janssen is a reasonable eighth-inning guy, maybe the other roles fall into place around him.
But as it poured rain on the first evening in June, and the honeymoon period was clearly over, the idea of Tyler Clippard walking through the bullpen gates to preserve a one-run lead in the eighth inning of a game at Nationals Park seemed like an option that could permanently solve what, at this point, is only a temporary problem.
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