On Wednesday, when the Nationals activated Henry Rodriguez from the 15-day disabled list and brought him to the majors, they got closer than they've been at any point this year to having the bullpen they thought they'd have all along.
And yet, their bullpen has never looked more in flux.
They've lost two straight games where their relief corps, which is usually solid, has allowed key runs. It was Doug Slaten letting two inherited runners score Tuesday night, and Sean Burnett giving up four in the ninth inning last night after the Nationals had retaken the lead to overcome the game-tying homer Tyler Clippard gave up.
The group now has a 3.79 ERA this year, and while rough stretches happen to every bullpen, the addition of Rodriguez seems to call for some sense of order.
At the moment, the Nationals have three pitchers they've been using in the late innings of games - Clippard, Burnett and Drew Storen. Manager Jim Riggleman has said how he wants each one of those pitchers to stake their claim to one of the last three innings of the game, but particularly with the closer's role, that doesn't seem to be in place yet.
Burnett started the year getting almost all the calls in save situations, until Storen saved three straight wins starting April 17. That's come since Burnett has hit a mini-slump; he's allowed seven runs in his last six innings, even though his only walk was an intentional one to Jose Reyes last night.
And yet, Riggleman went to Burnett in the ninth inning, even though he had both pitchers warming up. He said after the game he chose Burnett because the Mets had a stretch of left-handers due up; Storen, though, was better against lefties than Burnett last year, and they're 2-for-19 against him this year.
So the closer's role seems very much unsettled at the moment. My hunch is that Riggleman has a slight preference toward Burnett in save situations, wanting Storen to grow into the role. But the right-hander has been superb early this season, and it may be time for him to take the job.
Now, enter Rodriguez back into the situation. The Nationals viewed him as a possible setup man who had closer's stuff, and his 100 mph-plus fastball can be a weapon in the bullpen, provided he can control the walks. They'll probably start him off in lower pressure situations, but having him there would eventually give them one more option for the seventh or eighth innings. Riggleman has been using Clippard to put out whatever fire arises after the starter comes out, no matter where it happens to be, so having Rodriguez might allow him to use Clippard less frequently - unless it's Rodriguez's fires that Clippard needs to put out.
There are bullpens that have less rigid structures - Tampa Bay didn't have a closer during its World Series run in 2008, instead identifying four "tied or ahead guys" that manager Joe Maddon could trust in close situations. But Riggleman seems to want defined roles in his bullpen.
Now might be the time to start figuring those out.
"We just go out there when the phone rings," Burnett said. "That's no excuse, though. You just go out there and you've got to get three outs. I was unable to get three outs tonight."