Pursuit of Davis would leave Nats facing familiar closer issue

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - That the Nationals reportedly are interested in Wade Davis is not surprising. They made a run at the reliever at last year’s Winter Meetings, only to watch as he eventually was traded by the Royals to the Cubs for outfielder Jorge Soler.

There is one major difference for the Nats between last winter’s pursuit of Davis and this winter’s potential pursuit of Davis: They didn’t have a closer one year ago; they do now.

Sean-Doolittle-throwing-gray-sidebar.jpgThe July acquisition of Sean Doolittle addressed the club’s most-pressing need, and did so in a manner that solved that problem not only in the short term but the long term, as well. Doolittle, who was 21 of 22 in save opportunities for the Nationals following the trade, is under control for three more seasons, with the Nats holding club options on him for both 2019 and 2020.

For the first time in a while, the Nats entered an offseason not worried about the closer position.

But they do need more bullpen help, with fellow midseason acquisition Ryan Madson the only other experienced and healthy guaranteed member of next year’s relief corps.

There is no shortage of quality, experienced relievers on the market right now, especially the right-handers the Nationals prefer. Though that market has turned hot earlier than expected, with five free agents (Brandon Morrow, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, Bryan Shaw) all signing in the last three days.

The safest route for the Nationals would be to sign a solid seventh-inning reliever who could take over the role held capably down the stretch this season by Brandon Kintzler (or perhaps even re-sign Kintzler) but they may not go the simple and safe route.

The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported Tuesday night that while they aren’t close to completing any deals, the Nationals are among the teams interested in Davis, citing the reliever’s prior history with new manager Dave Martinez (who was his bench coach both in Tampa Bay and Chicago).

Davis, who posted a 2.30 ERA and 32 saves in 33 attempts while striking out 79 batters in 58 2/3 innings this season, is one of the best relievers in the sport. But he’s also been a hugely successful closer for the last 2 1/2 seasons, and there’s every reason to believe he’s going to expect to keep pitching the ninth inning wherever he ends up in 2018 and beyond.

So any pursuit by the Nationals of Davis includes a secondary message to Doolittle that he may get bumped to a setup role. We know the Nats have done this sort of thing before, and we know it typically hasn’t worked out well.

Twice in the last five years, general manager Mike Rizzo has acquired an experienced closer and bumped an already successful closer out of the job. Rafael Soriano was signed before the 2013 season, pushing Drew Storen to a setup role. Two years later, after his career resurgence, Storen again was pushed into a setup role when the Nats traded for Jonathan Papelbon.

In each case, Storen didn’t respond to the demotion well and proceeded to pitch poorly, while the new closers flamed out over time.

Now, Doolittle isn’t Storen. He’s older (31) and doesn’t have a longstanding track record as a closer. But the Nationals would risk messing with a good thing if they acquire someone else and bump Doolittle from the ninth inning.

Maybe Davis is worth it. His consistently dominant performances over the last three years certainly suggest he’s worth a lot.

But the Nationals have been down this road before. And they need to be careful they don’t end up following a familiar path that didn’t lead to the club’s desired destination.

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