Once a weakness, revamped 'pen enters spring as strength

As the start of spring training fast approaches, we're breaking down the state of the Nationals roster, position by position. The series continues today with the bullpen ...

Undeniably the club's biggest weakness through the first half of the 2017, the Nationals bullpen morphed into one of its true strengths by season's end. For that, thank general manager Mike Rizzo, who acquired three key arms in July and transformed the nature of the seventh, eighth and ninth innings in dramatic fashion.

And because two of those three arms already were signed for another season, and because Rizzo was able to re-sign the other one this winter, the Nationals relief corps will enter 2018 in stable shape. Given where things stood not that long ago, it's no small feat.

The Nats have, at one point or another in the last four years, anointed nine different pitchers as their closer, four of those having been acquired via trade or free agency. They certainly hope they won't require the services of a 10th different ninth-inning specialist since 2014, not after Sean Doolittle seized control of the job last summer and established himself as close to a sure-thing closer. The left-hander had some closing experience in Oakland, but this was his first prolonged opportunity to do it, and he thrived, successfully converting 21 of 22 save opportunities while letting only 30 batters reach base in 30 innings of work.

Doolittle did this despite throwing his fastball nearly 90 percent of the time, testament to how effective that bread-and-butter pitch is when located well. He talked about his desire to sprinkle in more sliders and changeups, but we'll see if he's able to find enough comfort zone with those off-speed offerings to utilize them more regularly in games.

Madson-Throws-Red-Sidebar.jpgDoolittle was close to a sure thing in the ninth inning, but Ryan Madson was a sure thing in the eighth inning. The veteran setup man didn't blow one lead in 20 appearances after joining the Nats, and his 28-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio was off-the-charts dominant. There's always going to be some fear about a 37-year-old who twice has undergone Tommy John surgery on his elbow, but Madson seems to have found a training regimen that works for him, and the Nationals will hope he has at least one more great season in him.

The club was in danger of losing the third member of its three-headed bullpen monster, but managed to bring free agent Brandon Kintzler back with a new contract that could keep the 33-year-old in D.C. another two seasons. Kintzler doesn't wow you with stuff, but his ability to induce weak contact and keep the ball on the ground makes him an ideal choice to pitch out of jams, and he'll be asked to do just that again this year.

The Nationals did lose one key member of last season's pen, the most surprising contributor as it turned out, when Matt Albers signed a two-year, $5 million deal with the Brewers last week. They'll need to find someone to take on that multi-purpose role from the right side, but they have candidates who might fit the bill.

Shawn Kelley was a dominant setup man in 2015 with the Padres and 2016 with the Nationals before enduring through a disastrous 2017 that included a staggering 12 home runs allowed in only 26 innings. Kelley (a two-time Tommy John surgery recipient himself) had to be shut down eventually with elbow pain, the result of several loose bodies that at times pressed up against a nerve. He's been deemed healthy, though, and will get a chance to rediscover his old form and perhaps return to a key, late-inning role this season.

Koda Glover also was ticketed for a late-inning role last season, and he even got a few chances to close, but injuries prematurely ended the young flamethrower's 2017, as well. Glover initially went on the disabled list with a strained back, but he later revealed to team officials his shoulder hurt. Turns out he had damage to the rotator cuff. Like Kelley, he's been cleared to pitch this spring and now will attempt to blossom into the dominant reliever the Nats have believed he could be all along.

The club lost Oliver Pérez to free agency, but there is no shortage of other left-handers still on the roster. Enny Romero showed flashes of brilliance, but he'll have to prove he can throw his upper-90s fastball with more consistent location while also developing trust in his slider to keep hitters off-balance. Sammy Solís dealt with injuries and disastrous performances for months, but finished the year strong with 11 straight scoreless appearances. Matt Grace, meanwhile, proved highly versatile as a matchup man, a long reliever and even a spot starter.

Two of those three lefties figure to make the opening day roster. Romero and Grace may have a leg up because they're out of options, as opposed to Solis, who is the rare player with a fourth option year and thus can still be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers.

The Nationals still need another couple of relievers to step up and become contributors. They liked what they saw by season's end from Austin Adams, a hard-throwing right-hander who seemed a bit overwhelmed by the big leagues when he first was called up. They also want to get a good look this spring at right-hander Wander Suero, who dominated in the minors last year and was added to the 40-man roster this winter. Trevor Gott, who was highly touted when he was acquired from the Angels but has been rather nondescript since joining the Nats, also remains in the system.

And then, of course, there's the possibility - maybe even probability - that the Nationals add another one or two experienced relievers to the mix either before camp opens next week or perhaps after workouts have already begun. They hit paydirt last year with Albers and are hoping they can find another diamond in the rough on a minor league deal.

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