It is perhaps the Nationals' biggest dilemma this winter - who's going to pitch the ninth inning? - and there is no easy solution to the problem.
The Nationals could sign one of the three big-name closers on the open market this winter, luring Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen to D.C. or bringing Mark Melancon back. They could take a chance and entrust the job to one of several in-house candidates, either veteran Shawn Kelley or young relievers Blake Treinen, Sammy Solis or Koda Glover. Or general manager Mike Rizzo could pull a rabbit out of his hat and find his 2017 closer via a trade no one has predicted.
At its core, though, this dilemma boils down to one key question: Is an experienced closer a necessity?
Rizzo was asked that question last month during a conference call with reporters.
"Experience is important, but it's not the end-all and be-all," the general manager said. "You're a first-year closer at some time in your career. So you're often asked to go into a situation at your position as the ninth-inning, late-inning reliever for the first time in your career. We've got guys that fit the bill, both character-wise, makeup-wise and stuff-wise. In a perfect world, you'd always like to have a guy that's done it in the most competitive situations, but that's not always possible."
Rizzo, as he usually is, was completely noncommittal in that answer, leaving open the door for either scenario. But he watches the rest of baseball closely, and both he and his top lieutenants certainly have seen how much money is being invested right now in top-tier relievers. Chapman, Jansen and Melancon all are going to cost serious money, most likely at least four years apiece for at least $15 million a year.
Is that a wise investment, to commit that much money and that many years to a closer? Well, here's a fact that may surprise you: None of baseball's last six World Series champions went through the entire season with one proven closer. Not one.
Go back and look at them all. You'll be stunned to see the names of the guys who opened each season as his team's closer, and how the role changed hands over the course of six months, sometimes more than once.
The 2011 Cardinals? Ryan Franklin was the guy on opening day, but he quickly handed the job to Mitchell Boggs, who handed it to Fernando Salas, who was replaced by Jason Motte, who closed throughout their World Series run.
The 2012 Giants? They thought they had a proven closer in Brian Wilson (who was great for them while winning the 2010 World Series). But he pitched in only two games before getting injured, so it was Santiago Casilla who became closer. Until Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo shared the job late in the season. Until Romo took over full-time and throughout the postseason.
The 2013 Red Sox? Old pal Joel Hanrahan was going to be the closer, but he got hurt right out of the chute. Andrew Bailey tried to hold down the job, but Koji Uehara took over in June and never looked back.
The 2014 Giants? As was the case two years prior, they thought they had a proven closer in Romo. But he lost the job in July to Casilla, who come October became the third different closer to close out a World Series title for San Francisco in five years. (Yes, technically Madison Bumgarner got the final out that season in a dramatic Game 7 relief appearance, but Casilla was the regular closer throughout the playoffs.)
The 2015 Royals had the best reliever in the sport in Wade Davis, but it was Greg Holland pitching the ninth inning for most of the season until he got hurt late and Davis took over just in time to lead Kansas City to its first championship in three decades.
And as we just saw, the 2016 Cubs got by with Hector Rondon for half a season before Theo Epstein pulled off the major trade for Chapman. (Though, again, it has to be noted that Chapman actually blew the save in Game 7, and it was little-known Mike Montgomery recording the final out of the North Siders' most important victory in more than a century.)
Point is, none of these teams went into its championship series with a high-priced, established closer who held the job all the way through to the the finish line. And most of the guys who did ultimately pitch the ninth inning in the postseason were home-grown relievers who ascended over time into the role, not acquired from outside for a boatload of money.
None of this means a team can't win a World Series with a big-name, high-priced closer notching 45-plus saves over a full season. But it certainly suggests that kind of pitcher is not a prerequisite for a championship.
Are the Nationals willing to take the chance that history will repeat itself in 2017, and somebody from their current bullpen will rise to the challenge and become the latest in this surprising string of closers? It all sounds great - until Glover or Kelley or Treinen blows four saves in April and the team finds itself scrambling to fix a major problem in-season.
The last six champions may have gone through multiple closers, but all did eventually find a dominant pitcher for the ninth inning.
It's the great catch-22 of modern bullpen construction: You can't win without a great closer, but you shouldn't spend a lot of money to get one.
Somehow, the Nationals have to navigate their way through all that and come up with a solution that works.