When the dust had settled after a frantic finish to this year’s July 31 madness, it was clear to anyone following along that the Nationals boasted a better roster after 4 p.m. Wednesday than they did before the trade deadline arrived.
Less clear, though, was the answer to this question: Did they get better enough?
The acquisitions of three late-inning relievers (Daniel Hudson, Hunter Strickland, Roenis Elias) provide a long-needed jolt to a Nationals bullpen that has been in various states of disarray since opening day. None of the three newcomers is better than closer Sean Doolittle (who lately has been a bit shaky himself) but all three arguably are better than anyone else in the Nats’ current relief corps.
That means a lot. Davey Martinez still must figure out roles for everyone, but at least the second-year manager now has options.
Maybe Martinez wants to stick with Fernando Rodney as his primary setup man, trusting the 42-year-old right-hander he’s known forever more than a fresh face. Maybe Martinez still believes in Wander Suero and Tanner Rainey based on their occasional bouts of brilliance so far this season.
But maybe Martinez will end up leaning on Hudson, who had a 3.00 ERA while stranding 21 of 22 inherited runners for the Blue Jays this season, to be his stopper when someone else gets into a jam. And maybe he’ll trust Elias over Tony Sipp and Matt Grace to get lefties out, despite the 30-year-old’s odd reverse splits this year.
And just maybe Martinez will discover that Strickland deserves to be known not for his longstanding feud with Bryce Harper but for his 2.98 ERA in 210 career major league innings, 80 percent of which have come in the eighth inning or later, and thus deserves to pitch exclusively in high-leverage situations.
If nothing else, Martinez has multiple viable options for most scenarios at long last. He shouldn’t ever need to pitch Rodney three times in 27 hours again. He shouldn’t have to ask anyone to pitch three days in a row anymore. He shouldn’t have to, with a game on the line, stare down at his bullpen and have no choice but to signal for the lesser of two evils.
“Even though we’ve had to cover, I think, the fewest innings as a group, as a bullpen, there’s still some of us that could use some reinforcements,” Doolittle said. “Suero comes to mind. He’s done an outstanding job. I’m so proud of the way he’s continued to battle all season long. He comes ready to throw every single day. I think every time I go into a game now, I’m setting a new high in games pitched, in innings pitched, as a National. So we’re all feeling it a little bit. It’s that time of the year. It will be good to have some new toys.”
Yes, it will. And yet it’s impossible not to look at the Nationals’ three new bullpen toys, compare them with the Braves’ three new bullpen toys and be jealous that the whole neighborhood is going to want to go over to their house to play every afternoon now.
While the Nats made calculated, cost-effective moves to address their bullpen needs, the Braves went all-in on three much pricier late-inning arms: Shane Greene, Mark Melancon and Chris Martin.
While the Nats kept all of their top-rated prospects and added only $1.233 million in salary in order to remain under the luxury tax threshold, the Braves dealt away their No. 7 and No. 10 prospects and also took on $6.75 million in salary this season, plus another $14 million guaranteed to Melancon next season.
Who knows which team’s strategy will end up more successful, but there’s no question Atlanta made the bigger splash at the deadline.
“The fact that we gave up nobody in our top 20 prospect list was important to us,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We stayed under the (luxury tax), which was important to us. But most important was that we’ve improved our baseball team with three really good relief pitchers, two of them that we control for the long haul. And it shows the guys in (the clubhouse) that we appreciate how we’ve been playing. ‘We see you. We believe it. And we’re all in it for the long haul.’”
The guys in the clubhouse certainly appreciate the reinforcements. (Well, aside from the two who already have lost their jobs because of the trades - Javy Guerra and Michael Blazek - and those who are now worried they could be next on the chopping block because the club needs to clear one more roster spot before Friday night’s game at Arizona.)
But the reaction to Wednesday’s trades surely didn’t rival the reaction to Rizzo’s July 2017 bullpen overhaul, when he acquired Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler. Those three names resonated throughout the clubhouse, three sure things who were acquired to take over the final three innings of games and lock down wins for a loaded lineup and rotation.
The 2019 Nationals also have a loaded lineup and rotation (though each is banged-up a bit at the moment). Is this newly fortified bullpen enough of a sure thing to lock down wins at a near-perfect rate?
That’s still up for debate. On paper, the Nats bullpen still doesn’t look like a dominant unit. It now merely looks respectable after spending the last four months looking like a train wreck in waiting.
Maybe that’s good enough to get this team over the hump. But as the calendar turns to August and the ability to acquire outside reinforcements disappears, the Nationals still have to acknowledge they’re 6 1/2 games behind a Braves club that made splashier moves to fix their own bullpen.
And though they still hold one of the National League’s two wild card berths, there are three more teams lurking within two games of them, all for the right merely to get into a do-or-die playoff game and perhaps advance to a five-game series with the league’s best team.
The Nationals are better today than they were Wednesday. That’s safe to say. But are they better enough to get to where they want to be in October? That’s very much up in the air.