The MLB All-Star Game is behind us, which means we’re in the second half of the season and the heart of the non-waiver trade deadline discussion.
All of the contenders have their wish lists, but there’s no bigger need in baseball than the Washington Nationals’ need to solidify their bullpen.
The Nats have the third-best record in the National League and fourth-best mark in baseball. They’re 9.5 games up on the Atlanta Braves atop the NL East and are in a great position to make the postseason. But this team needs to do more than just get to the playoffs. The Nats need to win a series and make a run. Their record suggests that’s possible, but when you consider a 5.20 bullpen ERA—the worst mark in the sport—it doesn’t bode well for Washington in a short series.
The ‘pen has been insulated to this point by a very strong rotation. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg were All-Stars. Gio Gonzalez could have very easily joined them.
With manager Dusty Baker’s reluctance to go to the ‘pen, the Washington rotation has thrown more innings than any other, hurling 541.2 frames. The 3.71 ERA posted by the unit was the third-best behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks, the two teams in the NL with better records than Washington.
The offense, of course, has also helped minimize the damage for the ‘pen, keeping the Nationals as a solid pick in our MLB Pick ‘Em Contests despite the inconsistencies at the back end of games. Even if the bullpen surrenders a lead, the bats are strong enough to get it back. That’s even with Tanner Roark and Joe Ross having down years.
In addition to a strong top of the rotation, Washington has scored more runs than any team in the NL and is second only to Houston in the majors. Blending power, speed and on-base percentage, the Nationals just keep chugging along at the plate through injuries to Adam Eaton, Jayson Werth and Trea Turner. Of course, with Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon in the middle of the order, it’s difficult not to score runs.
While the team’s been able to mitigate the damage caused by the bullpen, it’s still a gaping hole.
The issue starts in the ninth inning, as there is no elite closer. There’s no quality depth or lock down LOOGY either. Blake Treinen opened the year as the closer and bombed. The role went to Shawn Kelley, who has a 7.00 ERA in 18 innings and is now on the DL. Then, Koda Glover got the job. The youngster may be the closer of the future, but his 5.12 ERA shows he’s not be ready for the role. He’s now on the DL.
Enny Romero and Matt Albers each have a couple saves and are respectable pieces out of the ‘pen, but both are far more suited for the middle innings. For this team, the return of Glover and Kelley would help, but they still need a closer and another reliable arm to allow the pieces that are in place to slot into more appropriate roles.
The question is: who is out there and what will it take to get an answer for the later innings?
The Cubs got the dominos rolling on the trade deadline Wednesday, sending their top pitching prospect and top positional prospect along with a couple other minor leaguers for the White Sox’s Jose Quintana. The southpaw is a controllable arm with good track record of success, but he wasn’t throwing the ball well in the first half. Despite a 4.49 ERA, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn was able to demand a high price for his lefty and, as it turns out, Cubs general manager Theo Epstein and company were willing to pay that price. This trade market could be a pricy one for buyers.
Hahn will look to keep restocking his farm system. He’s already acquired huge hauls for Chris Sale, Adam Eaton and now Quintana, but he has assets to keep going, including an experienced closer in David Robertson. Chicago could also move other strong bullpen arms like Anthony Swarzak and Tommy Kahnle.
Other teams could dangle quality relievers, too. The Baltimore Orioles have more or less fallen out of contention. They have had a complicated history with the Nationals, but Zach Britton, Brad Brach, Darren O’Day and Mychal Givens are all upgrades. Could the Reds move Raisel Iglesias or Michael Lorenzen? Would the Nationals take a chance at bringing back Drew Storen? What about Ryan Madison in Oakland or the Phillies’ Pat Neshek to deepen the ‘pen?
There are options out there for Washington, but the price tag will be high. After dealing a fortune for Eaton in the offseason, the Nationals seem reluctant to part with remaining blue-chip prospects Victor Robles and Erick Fedde. Without either of them in the deal, it may be hard to land a Robertson, Britton or Iglesias.
In the end, the Nationals need to fix the ‘pen regardless of price, because the Cubs could still make a run, the Dodgers are stacked, and Arizona is not going away.