LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The Nationals are in the market for at least one experienced reliever, preferably right-handed. Whether they’re willing to jump right now into a market that has quickly become the most active of any position at the Winter Meetings remains to be seen.
Another veteran right-handed setup man came off the board Monday when Pat Neshek returned to the Phillies for a two-year deal worth a reported $16.25 million. That came on the heels of a pair of signings Sunday: Brandon Morrow to the Cubs for two years and $21 million and Luke Gregerson to the Cardinals for two years and $11 million.
There are a host of right-handers still available, but the market is being established right now, leaving the Nationals wondering how aggressive they should be to address this need.
“We’re going to look for the best value we can get,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We’ll identify guys that we like, and if we can get a value that we think is a fit for our club, we’ll jump on it.”
The Nationals know they are set in the eighth and ninth innings, with Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle holding down those roles. New manager Dave Martinez didn’t hesitate Monday to anoint that duo as his late-inning combo, retaining a formula that worked exceptionally well over the season’s second half.
“Sure, those two guys are going to be in the back end of the order,” Martinez said. “There will be some days when Doolittle will have to get a day off and Madson will probably close out a game, and so forth. But those two guys will definitely (pitch the eighth and ninth innings).”
“We think we have a lot of good bullpen arms,” the GM said. “Left-handed, we’re really deep there. And we’ve got some nice right-handed options.”
The right-handed options beyond Madson, though, carry some major health risks. Both Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover are set to return in 2018 after injury-marred seasons. When healthy and in top form, each has shown the ability to be successful pitching the late innings of big league games. But neither can be considered a sure thing at this point.
“Those are two big keys for us,” Rizzo said. “We expect both of them to be 100 percent ready for spring training and full-go. If those two guys bounce back and have the season that Kelley’s had in the past and we perceive that Glover’s going to have, we’re going to be a very deep, talented bullpen.”
The Nationals saw three key members of this season’s bullpen become free agents: Brandon Kintzler, Matt Albers and Oliver Pérez. Pérez doesn’t figure to return, not with four other lefties already under club control. Kintzler and Albers are likely to parlay their strong performances this season into multi-year contracts this winter, with Kintzler, in particular, perhaps getting offers to close for some clubs.
Therein lies a dilemma for the Nationals. They can’t offer anyone an opportunity to regularly pitch anything later than the seventh inning, but many of the relievers available are likely to receive offers for a more prominent role elsewhere.
How do they overcome that obstacle and convince someone to come to D.C. to pitch in front of Madson and Doolittle?
“Every case is individual,” Rizzo said. “You have certain rapports and relationships with guys, and they fit certain roles for us. The market, specifically the bullpen market, it’s a supply-and-demand situation. You have to identify guys. You try and get them at what you believe is fair market value for what you’re going to use them as and what they’re going to bring to the table and make a decision based on how impactful he’s going to be and the way Davey’s going to use him.”