Bullpen makeover could be long-term project this offseason

We know the Nationals want to remake their bullpen for 2016, and we also know that that potentially means significant changes over the corps of relievers who ended the 2015 season in Washington. But right now, there are more questions than answers when it comes to general manager Mike Rizzo’s plan to reconfigure his relief corps.

While the two biggest questions seem to be right-handers Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon, and while at least one of those arms could be gone before or at the Winter Meetings in Nashville, I don’t think the bullpen makeover will be a quick and easy proposition. In other words, don’t expect every new bullpen piece to show up, say, by the time WinterFest concludes at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center next month.

It’s entirely possible that neither Storen nor Papelbon will be heading to Space Coast Stadium for spring training. Storen is the classic change-of-scenery pitcher whose only hope of rebounding is finding and establishing a new comfort zone with a new team. Papelbon? Never mind the renegotiated contract and the fact that the Nats picked up his 2016 option as part of the ill-fated trade that brought him from the Phillies. Every day that he remains on the roster is another day the Nats are reminded that he tried to choke face of the franchise Bryce Harper in the season’s waning days. It’s nice that Harper extended an olive branch and that he’s saying all the right things about Papelbon being an important roster piece. If the Nats can find a taker - whatever the price - Papelbon will be dealt; if they can’t find a taker, they may just eat his contract and release him.

Yes, Rizzo is pushing hard to sign right-hander Darren O’Day, a free agent who throws with a deceptive sidearm motion and established himself as one the American League’s top set-up men in four seasons with the Orioles. O’Day is angling for a four-year deal worth between $28-$36 million and the Nats aren’t scared off by those terms (though four years for a 33-year-old with a funky delivery seems like a risk). It’s possible O’Day could make a decision before the Winter Meetings convene in Music City on Dec. 7. His wife is a D.C.-based reporter for FOX News, so there’s ample reason for him to come to a decision sooner rather than later. Let’s face it, he’s going to get a bundle - and if he has a willing suitor, there’s no sense trying to extract an extra million out of someone who wants him.

Yes, Rizzo is again talking to the Reds about closer Aroldis Chapman, and this time, the lefty who routinely lights up radar guns in triple digits could end up in Washington. But the price won’t be cheap, even if Chapman is a free agent after next season and even if the Reds are rebuilding. Maybe Storen, an Indianapolis native, moves closer to his hometown as part of the deal. We’ll see. The thought of sidewinder O’Day followed by Chapman’s 100 mph heat is, to say the least, intriguing.

blake-treinen-sidebar.pngBut since right-handers Joe Ross and Tanner Roark appear targeted for the starting rotation - unless Rizzo signs or deals for another starting pitcher - and since the Nats seem to have little interest in re-signing lefty Matt Thornton, what about the rest of the bullpen? Right-hander Craig Stammen will be back, but sometimes a guy coming off an injury has to pitch himself into shape. Righty Aaron Barrett is out for the season, recovering from Tommy John surgery. Left-handers Matt Grace, Sammy Solis and Felipe Rivero and right-handers Blake Treinen, Abel De Los Santos and Rafael Martin were a mixed bag in 2015, looking dominant one day and hittable the next. Even assuming the Nats land O’Day and/or Chapman, there’s still lots of work to be done, and I don’t get the idea that incoming manager Dusty Baker wants to have a bunch of greenhorns behind his eighth- and ninth-inning guys.

While Rizzo could make a deal for relief help - guys like Yunel Escobar (as discussed here) or Tyler Moore, who’s out of options, are perfect bait for a small move - it’s a good shot that the bullpen reconstruction will drag on into the new year. Think of it as baseball’s version of supply and demand.

If you’re a GM and you’re filling your team’s holes, you focus on the biggest items on your to-do list first. You talk and listen, laying the groundwork at the general managers meetings for deals that could come to fruition by the Winter Meetings. You take advantage of the fact that a lot of established players want to know where they’re playing by Christmas. And you keep a constant eye on the marketplace.

Because when it gets to January, you usually have a bunch of unsigned players - some of them perfectly good fits for your club - who are champing at the bit to sign a deal and want to know where they’re reporting for spring training. There could be another reclamation project like lefty Sean Burnett, who’s already coming to major league camp on a minor league deal, hoping to re-establish himself after twin Tommy John procedures. A team built to compete for a National League pennant will be attractive to a veteran fielding multiple offers - you know the old saying from “Bull Durham” about winning being better than losing, right?

So if there are still bullpen holes to fill when you’re counting backwards from 10 on Dec. 31 and the glittery ball descends in Times Square, fear not. Good general managers are licking their chops in the early portion of the new year’s first month because they know they can find incredible bargains that can yield significant dividends. Long after Black Friday and Cyber Monday, there will still be shrewd deals to be made and bargains to be had.

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