The Nationals bullpen will enter the 2018 season in far better shape than it did a year ago. Lest anyone forget the open competition to be the closer between Blake Treinen, Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover.
But the Nats bullpen doesn’t exactly look pristine beyond that trio.
The loss of Matt Albers - who statistically was better than any of the aforementioned three relievers in 2017 - is significant. Albers hasn’t signed anywhere yet, but there has been little evidence of a potential return to D.C. And to a lesser extent, so is the loss of Oliver Pérez, the most trusted lefty in the group (though the club has multiple replacement options with Enny Romero, Sammy Solís and Matt Grace.)
The Nationals will need one or two more relievers to step up. And at the moment, they appear ready to give opportunities to Kelley and Glover to fill that void.
Both right-handers dealt with injuries in 2017. Kelley had a variety of ailments, culminating with bone chips in his elbow that were not surgically removed out of fear of causing more damage to his twice-surgically repaired ulnar collateral ligament. Glover also dealt with a variety of ailments, most notably a tear in his rotator cuff that likewise was not surgically repaired.
It’s a risk for the Nationals to count on either guy being healthy and effective this season, but they appear determined to at least give each a chance, for different reasons.
Kelley’s best days may be behind him, but the 33-year-old is under contract for $5.5 million, and the Nationals aren’t just going to eat that money. And he’s not that far removed from being among the most effective setup men in baseball, with an 80-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2016.
Glover, meanwhile, still has the power arm and youthfulness that general managers and pitching coaches salivate over. The 24-year-old’s career to date has been defined more by injuries than performance, but he still has the look of an elite, late-inning reliever. He may never live up to the billing, but the Nats would be foolish to give up on him at this point.
What options does the club have beyond Kelley and Glover, though? Not a lot from the right side of the mound. Austin Adams has a good arm and is well regarded in the organization, but he looked overmatched in his (admittedly brief) big league audition last summer. And Trevor Gott has yet to develop into the kind of reliever the Nationals hoped they had acquired from the Angels two years ago.
The team’s best hope, to be honest, might be in the form of a veteran who comes to camp on a minor league deal and then forces his way into the big league bullpen. That’s the path Albers took last season.
The Nationals haven’t announced most of their non-roster spring invitees yet, but expect a good number of experienced relievers to be in West Palm Beach next month. The majority of them won’t pan out, but if one of them becomes the next Albers, the Nats bullpen will be better for it.