Pitching won’t come cheap for Nationals this winter

The Nationals know they need to acquire multiple pitchers this winter in hope of filling several holes vacated by departing free agents. They may have found out Wednesday just how much it’s going to cost them to do it.

Though the Rangers’ signing of Mike Minor didn’t draw major headlines, it was noted in baseball circles for one important reason: The left-hander may have just set the market for every other free agent pitcher this offseason.

Consider that Minor got a three-year, $28 million contract from Texas. That’s an average annual value of $9.3 million. Which is the highest annual salary for any non-closer reliever in baseball, topping the $9 million per year the Yankees gave ace reliever Andrew Miller (who was later traded to the Indians) three winters ago.

Yes, Mike Minor is the highest-paid non-closing reliever in baseball right now. That’s 29-year-old Mike Minor, former Braves prospect who missed all of 2015 and 2016 with shoulder injuries and then re-established himself this season for the Royals, posting a 2.55 ERA in 65 games.

Yes, Minor had a nice bounceback season and earned a raise. But nobody would dare try to argue this guy is the best setup man in baseball.

Such is the market for pitching right now, though. And it’s going to have a domino effect on everyone else.

It should be noted here that Minor is a bit of a strange case. Though he was exclusively a reliever this season, the Rangers are going to try to transition him back into a starter, which would help justify the cost a bit more. Still, he got paid based on one year of solid relief work.

That doesn’t bode so well for the Nationals, who have spent big bucks on relievers before and been burned by it. Remember Rafael Soriano’s two-year, $28 million contract? Shawn Kelley’s three-year, $15 million deal (which is only two-thirds complete)?

matt-albers-white-celebrate.jpgNow imagine what it’s going to cost to bring Brandon Kintzler or Matt Albers back for 2018. Or if not them, someone else with comparable track records. It’s not going to be cheap. And, as we’ve seen, there’s often a lot of risk involved in free agent relievers.

This is where it’s important to remember that there are other ways to fill out a bullpen with quality arms. It’s the way the Nationals have done it before, supplementing their one or two free agent signings with a host of minor league deals.

That’s how Albers became a part of this year’s bullpen. It’s how Matt Belisle became a part of the 2016 bullpen.

Trouble is, you can’t just sign one reliever to a minor league deal and expect everything will work out. For every one of these moves that works, there are probably three or four that do not. Yes, Albers was a great find last winter. But he was joined in West Palm Beach by Joe Nathan, Neal Cotts, Vance Worley, Jeremy Guthrie and Jacob Turner, all signed to minor league deals. You’ve probably forgotten about all or most of them by now.

So don’t be surprised if Mike Rizzo tries to create a lot of pitching inventory this winter, hoping that from quantity he can find quality and fill the couple of roster spots that need to be filled.

And if that doesn’t work? Well, there’s always the July 31 trade deadline. We know Rizzo isn’t afraid to try to bolster his bullpen that way.

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