Beyond Doolittle, Nats bullpen is full of question marks

As spring training fast approaches, it’s time to break down the state of the Nationals roster, position by position. The series continues today with the bullpen ...

A position of instability and turbulence for years, the Nationals bullpen entered the 2018 season as a legitimately perceived strength. The three-headed “Law Firm” of late-inning relievers general manager Mike Rizzo acquired during the summer of 2017 all returned, and the rest of the group featured a balanced combination of veterans and promising young arms, righties and lefties.

There is no position in baseball, though, that vacillates year to year more than relief pitcher. And so what appeared to be an unquestioned strength on opening day proved to be a real problem area as the season played out.

What, or who, was to blame for that? A combination of factors ranging from injuries to underwhelming performances to questionable usage. The end result: The Nationals bullpen finished with a 4.05 ERA (15th in the majors) and saw veterans Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler and Shawn Kelley all traded away.

The group that assembles next week in West Palm Beach will feature some familiar faces, but there will be two new right-handed setup men trying to rediscover their previous form. And there will be several less-experienced relievers trying to prove they’re ready to step up and be counted on to fill prominent roles.

The only sure thing in the entire bullpen is the man who pitches the ninth inning. Sean Doolittle arguably was the best closer in the National League last season, owner of a spiffy 1.60 ERA, 0.600 WHIP, ridiculous 60-to-6 strikeout-to-walk rate and 25 saves in 26 opportunities.

The only downside to Doolittle’s season, of course, was the fact he missed two months with a left foot injury that seemed minor at the outset but proved far more problematic. He did look just like his pre-injury self in September, and he insisted this winter the ailment is behind him and should not have any lingering effects. But the cautious-minded observer will nonetheless be watching him closely this spring and early in the regular season for any signs of trouble.

Needing to revamp his corps of setup men, Rizzo aggressively acquired two right-handers early in the offseason, headlined by Trevor Rosenthal. An All-Star closer for the Cardinals in 2015, Rosenthal struggled in 2016 and 2017, lost his ninth-inning job and wound up diagnosed with a torn elbow ligament.

He missed the entire 2018 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but impressed scouts when he threw for them in October, showing off a fastball that approached 100 mph. The Nationals swooped in and signed him for $7 million and now are banking on a return to pre-injury form.

Before free agency even began, Rizzo made a rare October acquisition, picking up Kyle Barraclough from the Marlins in exchange for international bonus slot money. An effective setup man who boasted a 2.87 ERA and 12.1 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate from 2015-17, he was enjoying a dominant run through the first half of 2018 that saw him ascend to Miami’s closer role, sporting an 0.99 ERA and eight saves in eight chances through the end of June.

But Barraclough imploded during the second half, blowing five of his seven save chances, allowing 50 batters to reach base in only 19 1/3 innings and watching his ERA skyrocket to 4.20 by season’s end. The Nationals hope he’ll be better served pitching in the sixth or seventh inning for them, the pressure of closing no longer on his shoulders.

The only other reliever assured of a job beyond the above three appears to be Matt Grace, the versatile left-hander who put up a 2.87 ERA in 56 appearances last season, taking on every role asked of him by the club. The 30-year-old was equally effective against batters from each side of the plate, so he’s not viewed as strictly a matchup lefty but rather a pitcher who can enter in just about any situation and record as many outs as needed.

Suero-Throws-Blue-Sidebar.jpgEverything else is up for grabs, but three right-handers who impressed at times last season stand out from the rest of the group. Koda Glover finally returned (and stayed) healthy during the second half, though his 9-to-10 strikeout-to-walk rate is a concern. Justin Miller was a late-blooming revelation who was dominant for long stretches and showed he could pitch in any situation but must prove he can duplicate it. And Wander Suero was a highly touted rookie who posted a 3.59 ERA in 40 appearances and possesses a lethal cutter.

The Nationals desperately need a left-hander who can enter a game in a big spot and retire a left-handed batter. Sammy Solís struggled mightily in that role last season - lefties torched him for a staggering .993 OPS - but the Nats will give him one more shot this season. Solis is out of options, so he either must make the roster or else be designated for assignment.

The Nationals have no more left-handers on their 40-man roster, but they did sign journeyman Vidal Nuño (4.06 ERA, 1.279 WHIP in 155 career games) to a minor league deal and will give him a look this spring. Common sense says they’ll be signing more southpaws at some point in the coming weeks.

If they need to dip into their farm system for right-handed bullpen depth, there are a number of available arms with varying degrees of experience. Jimmy Cordero, Trevor Gott, Austin L. Adams and Austen Williams have all pitched for the Nationals before. Tanner Rainey, acquired from the Reds in the Tanner Roark trade, has a big arm but erratic command. James Bourque was added to the 40-man roster over the winter after a breakthrough season at Single-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg.

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