Nats' most pressing spring question: Who's the closer?

The final countdown to spring training has arrived, and so we're spending the final days of the offseason counting down the Nationals' top storylines of the spring. We conclude today with the team's most pressing question in West Palm Beach: Who's the closer?

When they departed the ballpark 122 days ago, dejected from yet another first-round loss in the postseason, the Nationals knew there was a chance they would have a different closer when they reconvened again in West Palm Beach.

They probably did not, however, think they'd arrive for the start of spring training without a designated closer altogether.

Nobody really thought that would be the case. If they weren't able to re-sign Mark Melancon - they didn't; he wound up signing with the Giants - there was every reason to believe the Nats would acquire another experienced closer, whether a top-tier free agent like Kenley Jansen or Aroldis Chapman or a prime trade target like Wade Davis or David Robertson.

Instead, when pitchers and catchers report to The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches tomorrow, there will be no publicly declared closer. The identity of the man who will pitch the ninth inning to begin the season will be determined during the course of the spring from a limited pool of in-house candidates Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and Koda Glover, with 42-year-old Joe Nathan (trying to return from the second Tommy John surgery of his career) potentially trying to inject himself into the conversation.

This is not what anybody envisioned at the outset of the winter, but that doesn't mean the Nationals weren't prepared for the possibility all along.

Consider Mike Rizzo's answer to a question posed in mid-December about the massive contracts given to the likes of Melancon, Jansen and Chapman this offseason, and the inherent risk in spending that kind of money on somebody who only pitches 60-70 innings per year.

"We're all trying to create our closers in-house," the general manager said. "And we feel that we have candidates in-house for closer. We certainly have guys with stuff to close, and the makeup. We just don't have an experienced guy who's closed. I think that's the best way to do it."

Indeed, ask any GM in the sport and all would agree it's more prudent to develop a young closer than to spend big bucks on a veteran. Problem is, there's also plenty of risk in handing the ninth inning to a reliever who has never done it before, especially for a team clearly in win-now mode like the Nationals.

But this is the situation the Nationals find themselves in, and nothing's going to change that now (barring a surprise trade after camp opens). They're going to take their chances with what they have, and hope it pays off.

Kelley-Throws-Red-Sidebar.jpgOf the three returning candidates, Kelley has the most experience (356 career big league games, though only 11 saves) and is coming off a strong debut season in D.C. (2.64 ERA, 0.987 WHIP, 80 strikeouts and only 11 walks in 58 innings). The two biggest risks for Kelly: He wasn't nearly as successful against left-handed batters as right-handed batters last year, and a two-time Tommy John recipient himself, his workload was monitored closely last year, making him less likely to be available to pitch on back-to-back days.

Treinen enjoyed a breakthrough season (2.28 ERA, only 51 hits allowed in 67 innings, major league-best 17 double plays induced) and has a dominant repertoire that was effective against both righties and lefties. The risks: He walked a hefty 4.2 batters per nine innings, and his heavy sinker makes him an ideal candidate to enter from the bullpen and pitch out of a jam in an earlier inning.

Glover has the look of a closer more than anybody else in the running, whatever that means. He throws hard, he appears to be tough-minded and unfazed by pressure, and he has a bit of a crazed look in his eye. The risks: He's 23 with only 19 games of major league experience, and he admitted he tried to pitch through a torn labrum in his hip in September, an injury that could still linger into this season.

Nathan is the longest of long shots, having thrown all of 6 2/3 innings in the big leagues the last two seasons combined. But the Nationals are willing to at least take a look at the 42-year-old, just in case he has one last hurrah in a career that already includes 377 saves.

So that's the scenario as camp opens. It's not ideal. But it bears repeating once again: The Nationals don't have to commit to any of these closers for the full season. They very well could make an in-season change, whether elevating a young gun like Glover into the ninth-inning role or acquiring somebody else from outside the organization (as they did in July 2015 with Jonathan Papelbon and in July 2016 with Melancon).

Such a development wouldn't be unconventional. It actually would be quite normal. Each of the last six World Series champions made a change of closers sometime during the season.

Not that a fact like that will bring a whole lot of peace of mind to everybody who watches the Nationals this spring, wondering along with everyone else how exactly this situation is going to play out.

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