General Manager Mike Rizzo and his front office have a remarkable overall record. But the Washington Nationals’ offseason neglect, deluding themselves that they already had a closer in house, is an evolving calamity for a team that, if it had added the one player everybody said it needed, would be happy as 25 clams with 25 pearls inside.
The Nats may be the first team to lead a decimated division by umpteen games on Mother’s Day, have the second-best record in baseball at 24-13 and still be in fairly serious difficulties. On Sunday, Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover, both just back from the disabled list and hailed by Rizzo as the solution for the bullpen, tried to hold a two-run lead in the ninth against the Philadelphia Phillies. Both were okay in their first game back Saturday. But Sunday brought a message the Nats need to hear.
Kelley allowed a long home run, a 401-foot double that missed being a homer by six inches, a ringing RBI double and a walk. Glover allowed two hits, one of them a game-losing RBI single. There was less cannon fire at Gettysburg.
In the nightcap of a day-night twin bill, Kelley and Glover were not available, preserving their health. So it was Jacob Turner’s turn to blow a one-run eighth-inning lead, allowing a two-run triple to Freddy Galvis. That squandered a win for the second time in six days for Max Scherzer, who rolled on the ground in pain after a 100-mph liner off his left knee yet battled to finish six innings.
The Nats confront little opposition in the National League East largely because being a Mets pitcher seems to constitute a preexisting condition. But the Nats face an ugly mess nonetheless. When their bullpen door opens, horrid noises follow. The sound of low, resigned moans escape from the Nationals Park crowd. Starting pitchers who have done honorable duty and anticipate a “W” chew on towels. Then the percussive insult of bats denuding innocent baseballs shatters the nervous pall.
The Nats have a bullpen that will improve and may even be good for weeks at a time this summer. But they do not have a World Series bullpen. They have an assortment of relievers who, in some combination, can handle the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. But if you hand any or all of them the ninth in October, they will revert to this spring’s disaster and destroy the season. The Nats need to face it and fix it.
It’s not primarily the fault of Kelley, Glover or Blake Treinen, who got a battlefield demotion from the closer role in April. They’re attempting to work beyond their résumé or pay grade. They’re fine in proper roles. Someday Glover may be a closer. But right now, none are up to the most important job, not for the rest of this season. In the absence of that psychological ballast, the Nats’ bullpen takes on water and, seven times in less than six weeks, has sunk the blown-save ship.
The polite expression used throughout the offseason was that the Nats lacked a “proven” closer. This distinction neglected to address one central truth: The only kind of closer in existence is a proven closer. All the others are prospects, prayers and fantasies. The Nats went with that latter trio. Now the bill arrives.
Last week, after the Nats’ bullpen had torched a two-run ninth-inning lead and lost to Baltimore after eight swaggering innings by Scherzer, Rizzo said of the bullpen’s next-to-worst in MLB ERA (5.32) that “we got to own it” but said he would stay patient because of his relievers’ “track record.”
That’s a good one. Here are the career save totals of the men in the Nats’ bullpen: 14 (Kelley, in 369 games), four (Treinen), two, two, two, two and one. That’s a lifetime total of 27. Does anyone have the cellphone of Jonathan Papelb . . .
No, the Nats aren’t that desperate. But they are in a box, that’s for sure. And because they have waited so long and have such poor options now, they may not be able to fix it soon — or at all. Which would be a big shame since the Nats lead MLB in runs per game and their rotation, excluding two-thirds of a horrid inning by departed Jeremy Guthrie, would have one of the best ERAs (3.38) in MLB, too.
“I knew a long time ago that one of the biggest downers is a blown save because it carries over and it also carries over to the opposition,” Manager Dusty Baker said. “They think that, ‘Hey man, we can get in their bullpen and win the game.’ We have to reverse that thought process.
“On the real good teams that I’ve had, when you get to the sixth or seventh inning, we know it and they know that the game is over,” Baker said. “Got to go back to the drawing board. . . . But to answer [the] question, I don’t know right now.
“You’re always pushing for a trade, but ain’t nobody trading right now. Sometimes you have no choice but to have patience. Nobody is going to drop you down a knockdown closer out of the sky until there’s some teams out of it.
“We have to look from within right now. Because people know when you’re in need. And when they know you’re in need, they have to rob you — of your [farm] system.”
Perhaps hindsight is never better or more unfair than in moments like this. Nats followers delighted in the trade that brought Mark Melancon to the District at the trade deadline last August. But who did they trade? Felipe Rivero, 25, who has a 0.87 ERA in 20 games for the Pirates, is touching 100 mph and looks like just what the Nats need now as a setup man. He’s under team control through 2021.
Some, including me, suggested that, after the Nats didn’t get any of the glamour free agent relievers, such as Aroldis Chapman and Melancon (who are both on the disabled list), that taking a chance on Greg Holland, coming back from major elbow surgery, was a risk worth pursuing. Colorado got him an modest cost. But no one thought Holland, who wasn’t expected back until June, would be leading the majors in saves with 16.
From now until the trade deadline Aug. 1, the Nats will be balancing just such tricky options. Is diminutive, hard-flinging Kelvin Herrera of Kansas City or pretty good White Sox closer David Robertson worth the kind of painful price in prospects — everyone will ask for Victor Robles first — that it might take? Remember how good Melancon for the rising Rivero looked last summer and how crummy now.
The Nats never had an easy choice. But faced with high risk or high price, their final choice was no choice at all. Unless they catch lightning with Glover or make a prospect-costly trade this summer, that may end up being the biggest gamble of all.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.