LAKELAND, Fla. - Joe Blanton isn’t officially a member of the Nationals bullpen just yet - the veteran still needs to pass his physical, and the club needs to clear a spot for him on its 40-man roster - but Dusty Baker is intrigued by the positive effect Blanton could have on his ever-changing relief corps.
“It’ll be significant,” the manager said. “You’re adding a quality guy. You’re adding quality to our team, to our bullpen. You’ve just got to find out now, depending on how he throws, because he fills a lot of roles.”
Blanton’s precise pitching role has yet to be determined. He was highly successful last season as a setup man for the Dodgers, going 7-2 with a 2.48 ERA and 28 holds (fourth-most in the majors) in 75 appearances. But he has been a starter the vast majority of his career and thus has the ability to serve as a long reliever.
“I don’t know,” Baker said. “I imagine a lot of people are assuming. We’ll see how it pans out. ... We’ve got to get him on the mound. I have to discuss it big time with (pitching coach) Mike Maddux to figure out what’s best for him and what’s best for us in the long run and his longevity to keep him healthy. Because you get to a certain age and you have lots of miles. And also, we’ve just got to see.”
Despite his success last season, the 36-year-old Blanton surprisingly found himself still unemployed into late February, with potential suitors perhaps worried how much he has left in the tank. He wound up signing with the Nationals for a guaranteed $4 million, with another $1 million available in incentives, according to sources familiar with the deal.
Blanton’s career arc may not be conventional, but Baker views it as a strength.
“I mean, he’s a survivor,” the manager said. “There’s something to longevity and survival in this game. That’s, to me, similar going from an everyday player to Stephen Drew. That’s a similar situation to me. No. 1, you’ve realized the necessity to change at this point in time, to make the change, accept the change. And then to try to be one of the best after the change. That’s a tough one for a lot of guys to take. But if you want to pitch and you want to play, then it’s in our best interest at a certain part of your career. And that equates to more dollars for a longer period of time.”
Blanton’s signing doesn’t necessarily address the Nationals’ longstanding need for an experienced closer, but he does give Baker a deeper corps of relievers (particularly right-handers) from which to assemble the latter innings of games.
With the chance of acquiring a proven closer at this point all but gone, does Baker still like the overall collection of bullpen arms at his disposal?
“I ain’t have no choice,” he said. “You know what I mean? Would I have liked to have gotten a (Kenley) Jansen or a (Aroldis) Chapman or somebody like that, kept (Mark) Melancon? That would’ve been our first choice. As a manager, you have to figure out what you’ve got and try to make it work.”
How does Baker intend to try to make it work? He suggested he’ll, at some point this spring, choose one ninth-inning option among a pool of candidates that includes Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and 42-year-old Joe Nathan. He won’t decide on a closer night-by-night based on matchups.
“At this point it doesn’t look like we’re going to get any other outside help, so you start looking to what you have on the inside,” the manager said. “I don’t like that (closer) by-the-committee, because it doesn’t work. So we’ve got this spring to determine what we have. Somebody’s got to emerge. ...
“I’m going to ask my staff. I’m going to ask my catchers who they think has the makeup and endurance to do it. And who has the stomach. And who’s eccentric enough to handle it. Or who has the best ‘I don’t care attitude’ to handle it. Because you see guys get ruined, or at least hurt, by blown saves. That’s one of the biggest downers for a team, is a blown save. So right now, I don’t know what we’re facing.”