Remember last year when the Washington Nationals’ bullpen was a glaring question mark, really the only one, on a loaded roster with World Series aspirations entering the season? The Nationals waited until the last day of spring training, hours before they boarded a flight north to begin the regular season, to name Blake Treinen the closer. Within a month, the Nationals were on their third closer — and that was just the start. Anxiety-inducing late-inning crises were the norm. By mid-July, the Nationals had the highest bullpen ERA in baseball. Players felt like they had to win games twice. The answer following the question mark wasn’t suitable for a World Series contender.
The panic feels forever ago. That uncertainty doesn’t exist for the 2018 Nationals, at least not to the extent of last year’s club at this point in the calendar. This year, a closer competition wasn’t one of their spring training story lines. An 11th-hour announcement wasn’t necessary. The Nationals knew who would constitute the back end of their bullpen: Sean Doolittle is the primary closer with Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler as the primary setup men. The three, all acquired before last July’s nonwaiver trade deadline, have provided Washington a bullpen backbone perhaps unlike any other in its history.
“To have guys here healthy, guys who have pitched in those roles, to not have the constant questions from media or even your own inside — ‘Who’s going to close? Who’s got the eighth?’ — just having those guys back there, veteran guys, takes a little pressure off us,” said Shawn Kelley, one of the three closer candidates a year ago. “If we do our job . . . and turn it over to the next guy, he’ll do his job. It’s just a well-oiled machine.”
The improvement meant one less area to worry about during spring training, but questions about the Nationals’ bullpen remain, especially beyond those three pillars.
First, Matt Albers, who posted a 1.62 ERA in 63 games with Washington last season, signed with the Milwaukee Brewers. Then Koda Glover, a hard-throwing right-hander some expected would have assumed the closer role by this season, was immediately shut down upon reporting to camp because of shoulder pain. Shortly thereafter, the Nationals signed 40-year-old Joaquin Benoit to a major league contract worth $1 million, believing he would be in the Opening Day bullpen. Instead, he strained his right forearm and won’t be ready for the start of the campaign.
Kelley, a veteran right-hander the Nationals will pay $5.5 million this year, struggled near the end of the Grapefruit League slate, allowing a home run in three consecutive outings — a dispiriting development for the reliever with the worst home run rate in the majors last season. Beyond those veterans, Trevor Gott, who had a strong spring, figures to be next on the right-handed reliever depth chart. Austin Adams, who boasts elite stuff but still battles bouts of wildness, was optioned to Class AAA over the weekend but could still factor into the team’s plans. Wander Suero, who dominated in Class AA and AAA last season, will be an option when he gets healthy after straining an oblique earlier in the month.
“We’re extremely happy with the bullpen arms that we have in camp,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “I’m really excited about Gott and Adams, the way they’ve made what seems to be another step forward in their progression. So we think our depth has improved during spring training.”
On the left side, that Nationals have Sammy Solis, Enny Romero, Matt Grace at their disposal. But, complicating matters, Romero and Grace are out of minor league options, meaning the Nationals must carry them on the major league roster the entire season or risk losing them on waivers. Meanwhile, Solis, who can get both righties and lefties out, has one option remaining. Tim Collins made a run at an Opening Day roster spot but was re-assigned to minor league camp Saturday. Collins, who is coming off two Tommy John surgeries, is on a minor league deal with a July 1 opt-out.
That list, of course, doesn’t include Doolittle, the best lefty of the bunch, who has never been a closer for an entire season and has been on the disabled list four times since the start of 2015. The previous four absences have been shoulder-related and never for fewer than five weeks.
Madson is a 37-year-old flamethrower with his own extensive injury history, though he has avoided serious any setbacks since his reincarnation in 2015. Kintzler, meanwhile, avoided injuries as he became one of baseball’s most reliable relievers the past two seasons after various ailments earlier in his career. As a result, Nationals Manager Dave Martinez has maintained the club will closely supervise the trio, which could mean their roles shift periodically.
“I want none of those guys getting hurt,” Martinez said. “It’s all through conversations and monitoring their workloads, how many innings they’re pitching . . . we’ll look at all that stuff.”
So the Nationals’ bullpen, like most things in this sport, isn’t completely a sure entity. There’s no predicting how the unit will perform, though recent history suggests it will do well if the big three avoids serious injury; after Kintzler’s debut last season, the club ranked fourth in baseball with a 3.13 bullpen ERA. Regardless, the composition will still probably change given Rizzo’s tendency to add pieces over the course of a season. What’s certain is the group is in a significantly better place than a year ago.
Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.
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“To have guys here healthy, guys who have pitched in those roles, to not have the constant questions from media or even your own inside — ‘Who’s going to close? Who’s got the eighth?’ — just having those guys back there, veteran guys, takes a little pressure off us.”
Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley, who was one of the candidates to be the team’s closer last season but who now should fill a middle-relief role