How long can Nats stick with struggling Barraclough?

As damaging as Trevor Rosenthal’s early season performance was to the Nationals bullpen, Kyle Barraclough’s struggles have had nearly as much of a negative impact on that group as a whole.

Barraclough, who like Rosenthal was acquired early in the offseason by general manager Mike Rizzo, was supposed to join his fellow right-hander as setup men for Sean Doolittle, offering manager Davey Martinez experience and success in that role over the last three seasons for the Marlins.

Rosenthal’s blow-up was immediate and impossible to ignore, resulting in a lengthy trip to the injured list for a minor illness and then a four-week rehab assignment to try to get himself straightened out. Barraclough, meanwhile, has remained part of the big league bullpen throughout, but his continued struggles are becoming more and more of a problem and may not leave the Nats front office facing a tough decision.

Barraclough-Throws-Gray-Sidebar.jpgAfter another subpar outing Saturday during a 10-3 thumping at the hands of the Diamondbacks, Barraclough saw his ERA jump to 6.39, his WHIP to 1.737. And it’s only getting worse. Over his last 13 appearances, the 29-year-old has allowed 16 earned runs on 18 hits, five walks and two hit batters, serving up six homers in the process.

“I’m just getting hurt on that one pitch,” he said. “I think the last three, four times I’ve given up runs, it’s been on a home run, and they’re two-run homers. So (the solution is) just keeping the ball in the park.”

Why, though, has Barraclough struggled so much to keep the ball in the park? There are several factors:

* Decreased velocity. Barraclough’s fastball averaged only 92.7 mph during Saturday’s game. It was the first time all season he didn’t average at least 93.3 mph, according to FanGraphs.com.

“His velo is a little down, and his secondary pitches are just not good right now,” Martinez said. “His slider, he can’t even throw it over for strikes. His velo is down to 92-93, but for a while there, he was throwing a pretty good changeup. Couldn’t throw that today, either.”

* Falling behind in the count. Barraclough hasn’t been able to throw strike one, and that leaves him constantly trying to get himself back into a favorable count, perhaps helping lead to the home runs.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s been just one pitch,” he said. “Look at all of them. I think they’re all coming on different pitches. Just bad counts. Some of them are behind. Some of them are ahead. Some of it’s bad luck, but most of it is just execution of the pitches.”

* An inability to put hitters away. Even when he gets to two strikes, Barraclough often can’t finish off an at-bat. He has thrown a total of 549 pitches to 122 batters this season, an average of 4.5 per plate appearance. That’s a lot. For comparison’s sake, Doolittle, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin all are averaging 3.9 pitches per batter. Wander Suero, who has struggled himself at times, is averaging 4.2, still much better than Barraclough.

“That’s tough when you’re not hitting your spots and the velo’s down,” Martinez said. “All of a sudden now, instead of 0-2, 1-2, you’re getting 2-2, 3-2 on hitters.”

Barraclough insists he’s healthy and that his struggles aren’t the result of any physical ailment. He said he’s working with pitching coach Paul Menhart on mechanical tweaks, both watching video and making adjustments on the mound to try to get himself right.

But how long can the Nationals afford to wait this out? They gave Barraclough a full week off in between appearances earlier this month. That didn’t help much. Now he finds himself pitching in low-leverage spots, but eventually the Nats need him (or someone else) to be capable of getting important outs.

Even though he has 258 games of big league experience and made at least 61 appearances each of the last three seasons, Barraclough does have minor league options left. The Nationals could unilaterally choose to demote him if they want.

The club has been operating with an eight-man bullpen and only four-man bench for a while, and Martinez has expressed a desire to return to a seven-man relief corps and five-man bench sooner rather than later.

Along those lines, infielder Adrián Sanchez was pulled from Double-A Harrisburg’s game in the eighth inning Saturday night and was spotted saying goodbye to teammates in the clubhouse afterward, according to Harrisburg reporter Mick Reinhard. If Sanchez is headed to D.C., he could be replacing a reliever, and Barraclough is probably at the top of the list to be removed from the active roster at this point.

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