With Kintzler, Nats turn to familiar face to fill bullpen hole

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The Nationals came to the Swan and Dolphin Resort with a short but clear list of needs. They departed having addressed only one of those needs, but they did so in a manner that should please just about anyone who cares about such things, at a price that should allow them to address their other needs later this winter.

The late-night re-signing of Brandon Kintzler to a two-year, $10 million contract that’s technically not a guaranteed two-year, $10 million contract - more on that in a little bit - was a sudden bolt of energy just before the conclusion of a Winter Meetings that had been awfully quiet for both the Nationals and most of the baseball world.

Rizzo-with-media-sidebar.jpgGeneral manager Mike Rizzo doesn’t typically jump into the reliever market this early in the offseason, but with sluggers and starting pitchers sitting by the wayside for now, there was an intense run on bullpen arms this week and the Nats couldn’t afford to run out of options.

They considered going big for a proven closer like Wade Davis or Greg Holland, and they considered other experienced setup men like Juan Nicasio. But in the end, they went with a guy they already knew - and for a very affordable price.

Kintzler has his faults (on paper, at least). He’s 33. He was a late bloomer who had to resort to independent ball a few years ago to resurrect his career. He strikes out only 4.9 batters per nine innings, making him an extreme outlier at a time when power pitchers who induce swings and misses are prioritized.

But he was very successful for the Nationals following his July 31 acquisition from the Twins, a groundball-inducing, strike-throwing setup man who completed the club’s three-man “Law Firm” bullpen that helped the Nats lose only one game it led after six innings following the mid-July trade for Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle. (The Nats lost eight such games prior to that point.)

Given his success closing for Minnesota, Kintzler figured to receive offers this winter to pitch later innings for some other teams. The Nationals, though, offered him something more valuable in his mind: a chance to return to a role and a team he very much enjoyed following his acquisition. And so he accepted a deal that actually looks a bit under-market given what other comparable relievers have been getting this week ($8-$10 million per year).

Kintzler’s contract, which won’t be official until he passes a physical that may not take place for several days, is a bit convoluted. Not every detail is known yet, but a source familiar with some of the particulars said he’ll make $5 million in 2018, with incentives that could help determine his 2019 salary.

If Kintzler reaches all of those as-yet-unknown incentives, he could end up making as much as $16 million over two years. If he doesn’t reach the incentives, the Nationals could decline their club option and then leave it up to Kintzler to decide if he wants to exercise a $5 million player option for 2019.

Thus, technically this isn’t a guaranteed, two-year deal. It’s unlikely each side would decline its separate option, but there is a scenario in which Kintzler could become a free agent after only one year.

Regardless, this was a marriage that worked well last season and was strong enough to convince both sides to get back together again for at least one more season. In the process the Nats addressed a significant need before leaving town today.

The Nationals bullpen may still pose some questions. Lefties Enny Romero, Sammy Solís and Matt Grace are far from automatic. Righties Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley can’t be presumed healthy contributors until they actually prove it over an extended period on the mound.

But given where this group stood only five months ago, a complete disaster that required nightly contortions just to get through a ballgame in one piece, the Nats relief corps shouldn’t be producing very many headaches heading into 2018.

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