There is no more volatile position in baseball than relief pitcher, no more volatile position group than the bullpen. Only a handful of the very best relievers can consistently be counted upon year after year, so that always makes this aspect of the roster tougher to predict than others.
Which also makes the Nationals bullpen both intriguing and nerve-wracking here as the 2019 season looms in the not-so-distant future.
This is nothing new, of course. Rarely have the Nats entered a season with complete confidence in the relief corps they assembled. And even when it seems like that corps is worthy of confidence, often it’s not.
Take last year’s bullpen. With Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler returning, the Nationals figured to be in great shape. But Doolittle, after a dominant first half, suffered a strange foot injury that sidelined him two months. Madson couldn’t keep himself both effective and healthy for sustained stretches. And Kintzler was erratic (and possibly overworked) before getting traded on July 31.
The end result was an ever-changing arsenal of late-inning arms that at times was strong and at other times cost the team games. The Nationals bullpen ranked 15th in the majors in ERA (4.05), ninth in WHIP (1.27) and 20th in strikeouts per nine innings (8.49).
What can be expected from the unit in 2019? Well, you’ll be shocked to find out that we again can’t say with much certainty how good this bullpen will be.
Doolittle has now established himself as a reliably dominant closer. In 73 career appearances for the Nationals, he now owns a 1.92 ERA, 0.760 WHIP, 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings and 46 saves in 48 opportunities.
The only question the lefty faces is his foot. Is the stress reaction that spoiled his 2018 season completely gone, or is there any chance it resurfaces?
“We’re confident, I’m confident it’s now behind me,” he said last month.
The Nationals had better hope so, because they don’t have any other sure things in their ‘pen behind Doolittle. The club’s two big additions so far this offseason (Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough) each bring plenty of promise but also plenty of uncertainty.
Rosenthal was an elite closer for the Cardinals, with a 2.66 ERA, 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings and 96 saves in 110 chances from 2012-15. But he regressed in 2016-17 and then needed Tommy John surgery. Now the right-hander returns with a new elbow, reportedly throwing in the upper 90s again, but having not thrown a competitive pitch since August 2017.
Barraclough was a solid setup man for the Marlins from 2015-17, with a 2.87 ERA and 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings. But he actually was less effective when given a chance to close last season. Now he’ll hope to return to top form pitching the sixth or seventh inning for the Nationals. On paper it looks like a nice pickup. It remains to be seen if it proves true.
The Nats hope one or more young right-handers who pitched well at times last season can become more consistent options for them in 2019. That includes Wander Suero (3.59 ERA, 1.217 WHIP in 40 appearances), Justin Miller (3.61 ERA, 1.127 WHIP, 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 51 appearances) and Koda Glover (3.31 ERA but 10 walks and only nine strikeouts in 16 1/3 innings). Again, there’s potential there, but little track record.
And there are more unsure things from the left side of the ‘pen, with Matt Grace and Sammy Solís the returning arms. Grace (2.87 ERA, 1.140 WHIP) had a nice season as something of a jack-of-all-trades, but he still needs to prove himself over the long haul, and the Nationals have to figure out if he’s best suited to pitch in short or long relief. Solís (6.41 ERA, 1.551 WHIP) was a mess last season and was a candidate to be non-tendered, but the organization decided to give him one more shot and hopes he can finally find a formula to get left-handed batters out.
What do you get when you put all of that together? A bullpen with some potential but a whole lot of question marks.
Which, come to think of it, has kind of been standing operating procedure around here for some time.