WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — So we’re not going to get into the idea that signing Tony Sipp, an accomplished and capable left-handed reliever, means that the Washington Nationals wouldn’t benefit from signing Craig Kimbrel, a historically good closer. The conclusion we can draw: The Nationals are better Wednesday than they were Tuesday. Who knows what Thursday brings — or what, say, the July trade deadline eventually yields. But there are new faces in this clubhouse all the time, and each one of them matters.
Maybe you don’t know Sipp. That’s fine. We’ll get to why he’s important over the course of the season. What’s important now: A Nats clubhouse that’s already buoyant felt bolstered by Wednesday’s news. Not Kimbrel buoyant. Still.
“We’re pretty lucky,” eternal Nat Ryan Zimmerman said. “That’s one thing they’ve always done: They’ve spent money. They’ve probably had chances to do whatever you want to call it — rebuild is one word.”
Aside: “Tank” is another.
“But they haven’t done it,” Zimmerman continued. “We see that, and we appreciate it.”
Sipp immediately deepens and diversifies the bullpen, and that’s important with what’s to come: 162 games over six months in which the seven (or eight) relievers who begin the season won’t be the only seven (or eight) who are needed between now and (potentially) October. We will hear a lot about Sipp’s ability to retire left-handed hitters: a teensy-weensy .191 average and .557 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against him over 54 appearances last year with Houston.
That’s important when, on a given night in the seventh or eighth inning, the National League East will spit at you Bryce Harper or Freddie Freeman or Robinson Canó. You better be ready.
“He has his work cut out for him,” said closer Sean Doolittle, a lefty himself. “Welcome to the NL East.”
But two other elements, perhaps of equal importance, are symbolized by Sipp’s arrival, which came Wednesday afternoon with introductions, his equipment still packed in an Astros bag.
First, no reliever is added to a bullpen in a bubble. Sipp’s addition makes Matt Grace, a lefty who can go multiple innings, better. He makes Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough, the primary right-handed setup men, better. He helps ensure that this is not 2017, the year the would-be contending Nationals ventured into the season with unproven Blake Treinen as the closer, with so many roles TBD on a night-to-night basis.
“Having that depth and having that flexibility is really important over the course of a long season,” Doolittle said, “where you’re not relying on just two or three guys every night.”
The other factor in Sipp’s arrival isn’t measured by writing out names on a roster or sifting through splits. It’s the impact on the clubhouse. Across the sport, players are sitting at lockers this spring wondering whether their team is trying its best to compete. These Nationals — even without Kimbrel, whom we’ll revisit in a moment — don’t have that concern.
Sipp’s signing — for $1 million this year and a $250,000 buyout of a mutual option in 2020 — is the eighth major league free agent contract issued by the Nats this offseason. No other team has signed more. (The Yankees are next with seven, and six teams signed six.) Washington’s new contracts range from Sipp’s modest deal to Patrick Corbin’s six-year, $140 million whopper, but they represent the same thing: The front office and ownership are providing the tools. The message to players: Go get it done.
“We’re expected to make the playoffs every year,” Zimmerman said. “Not everyone can say that. Those expectations, they’re a cool thing to have. The fans should appreciate it, too.”
That spring of 2017, when Treinen and Shawn Kelley and whoever walked through the door might have had a chance to close, a Nats instructor told me: “If they had signed [Aroldis] Chapman or [Kenley] Jansen, everyone in here would have his chest puffed out. Now you don’t know.”
These Nats, their chests can be puffed out — to a degree.
“Ownership has given us the resources to put together this club,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “We’ve got a really talented team that we’ve put together within the parameters of what they wanted to do.”
So here’s where it gets interesting: What ownership wanted to do was to stay under the competitive balance (read: luxury) tax threshold, which this year settles at $206 million. All the elements that go into determining what would exceed that have the Nats somewhere between $5 million to $10 million short. Over the course of the years the Nats have contended, Rizzo always has been able to add a piece at the deadline, though he occasionally has had to jump through financial hoops to make it happen. Should they need a jolt in July, will these Nats be able to do the same?
“I haven’t been told that we’re not going to be able to do that,” Rizzo said. And yet staying below the tax threshold remains a priority?
“I think ownership wants to stay within the parameters,” Rizzo said.
And so, then, no Kimbrel.
You know what’s funny, though? I had been at spring training fewer than 24 hours when, unsolicited, four Nats people made cases that they were Kimbrel away from becoming World Series favorites. Doesn’t mean they would win it if they signed him. But in March, those chests would be puffed out to a lung-splitting degree.
So there’s a decision here, if it hasn’t been made already. Kimbrel is the kind of free agent owners find attractive. He’s a seven-time all-star who is coming off a World Series run with the Red Sox, but he spent the first five years of his career in Atlanta, where he owned the Nats to a degree that still makes your head hurt. In the 45 times the Nats have faced him, they have managed a — get this — .140 average and a .217 slugging percentage.
Wouldn’t all those times an owner watched a guy strangle his own team make you want to go out and get that guy?
Whatever. These Nationals intend to contend. And with each addition the front office makes — including a veteran lefty just more than two weeks before the start of the season — the swagger becomes more justified. What might Thursday yield?
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga