Nationals Baseball: Offseason Position Discussion : Relief Pitching

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Offseason Position Discussion : Relief Pitching

Man, I thought if I could just wait long enough this might take care of itself. No such luck.

Last Year's Discussion
I didn't do one! So there you go. I did say a bunch of times I thought Papelbon would end up being back assuming Bryce was ok with it because they pretty much had no other option. And that's exactly what happened. I'd take some credit but again - no other option.

How did it turn out? Not as bad as you thought it would or think it did, but still not good. Papelbon would actually start the season fine. Near the end of May he'd have 13 saves to only 2 blown saves, be sporting a 2.75 ERA.  A respectable 1.22 WHIP and opponents line of .260 / .308 / .356.  There were warning signs though - he wasn't missing bats (6.4 K/9), his FB speed was down and hitters were hitting them hard.  The ERA would jump to 3.28 as the hits would start falling, but he still had luck on his side and was finishing games successfully. In mid June though Papelbon was pulled for a rib injury. There was some hope that the shaky start was linked to this injury and at first we though that might be the case. He was fairly dominant - which he hadn't been all year -  over the next 7 games.  Then the wheels, spinning wildly and moving in directions they shouldn't for most of the season, came off.

On July 23rd Papelbon would shakily hold onto a tie against the Padres.
On July 24th (3rd day in a row pitching) Papelbon would blow up against the Padres turning 6-6 to 10-6.
On July 26th Papelbon would blow a 6-4 lead to the Indians (an error was also involved).
On July 28th Papelbon handed a 4-1 lead would put two batters on getting one out before being pulled.

His ERA ballooned from 2.56 to 4.41. Just as the trade deadline was coming the answer became crystal clear. Papelbon couldn't be the closer for this team in the playoffs. Melancon was traded for, Papelbon was demoted then released in short order. Melancon filled the role admirably (1.82 ERA, 17 SV, 0.809 WHIP) for the rest of the year.

The rest of the pen?  The first half of the year it was a mixed bag.  Guys like Belisle, Treinen and Solis weren't pitching all that well but were getting results. Felipe Rivero had pitched well, but a couple of big run outings made him look bad. Shawn Kelley was good. In the second half of the year, it came together. Treinen and Belisle started pitching more in line with their effective stats. Rivero was traded but Marc Rzepczynski was brought in and perform strongly. Shawn Kelley was very good. The expensive fringes of the pen, Perez, Petit, had issues but Dusty seemed to be able to pull the right switches. Overall it felt like it was a good pen that just needed a good closer to set everything in place.

Presumed Plan 
Earlier I would have probably said the Nats would trade for a closer, but I'm not sure what they have left to trade if Robles is untouchable. They could get a decent set-up man with the right package, a guy that could easily close but fans and the team aren't looking for someone without a track record. At this point I'm going to guess nothing happens in terms of getting a proven closer. Treinen or Kelley is handed the closer role to start the year.

Reasoning on the presumed plan 
The Nats did want a closer but they also have assumed budgetary contstrictions. The Nats payroll was set to increase by 15 million or so just from increasing contracts and arbitration awards - dumping Revere, Espinosa, letting some relief arms walk - only balances that out. The Lerners continue to cry poverty over the MASN deal and are determined to not put money into the payroll that may influence that opinion. That doesn't mean they weren't interested in making a big play for a closer, they seemed to be in on both Melancon and Jansen, but it means they were more interested in sticking to their convictions on what these guys were worth because other moves would probably have to be made to balance that out (Bye Gio!). Failing on getting either of those guys though, and I think they really thought they could re-sign Melancon to something like 4/50 million, has left the Nats in a bind. They'd still like a closer but the good options are limited, especially now that they spent their prospects on Eaton.

At this point I think the Nats are almost out of trade partners. The White Sox will want more for Robertson and he's way too expensive for the Nats. The Rays will want more for Colome. The Padres will want more for Maurer. Both will probably wait and see if they can't get more at the trade deadline, certainly than what the Nats can offer with certainty today. The Nats won't see the point of bringing in a Madson at his monetary cost. The last possibility is the oft injured Sean Doolittle; a good arm, cheap with closing experience. It's the best chance but I don't think it's a good one

Really what the Nats are doing now is sitting on the Greg Holland market, hoping they can get a deal for him. He may not be healthy coming off TJ but with his experience makes him an easy sell on a cheap deal. If they fail with him, and I think they will, the pickings become slimmer. Brad Zeigler is probably the next best option but indications are that he's going to price out for what the Nats are willing to pay him (he'll go above what he probably should is what I'm saying).  In the end I think the Nats will sign whoever shakes out of this that they can get for something like 1yr 3 mill or cheaper. Casilla maybe? But they won't make him a closer. They'll leave it open and either Kelley, who probably deserves it if healthy, or Treinen, who they've tried to tell us is just around the corner from being a dominant closer for three years now, will start the year in the 9th spot.

Problems with the Presumed Plan
The biggest problem is probably the psychological reaction from the fans and the team. The team will say they are ok, but will look at the obvious hole and wonder why management won't fix it. The fans will say "GET A DAMN CLOSER" . What happens though is that this snowballs if whoever is named closer fails early at the job, and it disappears (for a while) if he excels. It's a gamble on something you can't really measure. And while it will disappear for a while, it'll come back with a vengeance if the Nats make the playoffs and say Treinen is expected to close.

As for the actual performance the biggest gamble is how it sets up everything else. Things sort of worked wtih Papelbon as closer and a big reason for that was Dusty figuring out how to use everyone else effectively in those earlier innings. But as soon as Pap went down the pen struggled with everyone up a step. Kelley was now in the 9th, Treinen saved to lead into him and the pen just wasn't deep enough to have what had been the 4th and 5th guys pitching big innings, at least not before the trades brought in some fresh arms. Those arms are all gone again so the Nats are essentially in a similar place as last year without Papelbon.

That could still work out fine. Glover might recover from injury. Solis or Grace might develop into reliable pen arms. Perez could be an effective LOOGY. That would be enough with Treinen and Kelley at the end, especially so if they sign one cheap effective arm like I think they will. BUT it does leave the Nats with Kelley in an important role and Kelley's arm is a big question mark given him multiple issues and leaving the playoffs as he did. If Papelbon, a not good but effective at the time arm, going out created issues, imagine what losing actually good Kelley will do. If no one has stepped up into that 3rd best role and Kelley goes down there's a lot of innings going to question marks.

My Take
You don't trade the farm for a closer. You don't have to spend a ton of money on a closer. That and snake handling was just how I was raised. I still believe it. The Nats have been a very successful franchise over the past few years without ever feeling like closer was locked down for a whole season. They've had some big moment blow-ups in the playoffs but in general the bullpen has been effective enough to win these series and it's other failings that doom the Nats.

So basically I'm fine with the Nats doing this as long as they treat 2017 like 2016. If a dominant arm doesn't emerge - go out and get the closest thing you can to it for the playoffs. The playoffs are not the regular season and they demand a lot of match-up work, which means a lot of arms. If you don't have that - you get that. The Nats did that work in 2016 - Rep, Melancon - and the Nats pen was very good in the Dodgers series and the whole thing came down to the wire.

Would I rather the Nats have gone out and spent money on  Melancon / Chapman / Jansen? Yes, of course. But that's my view of teams and spending. These are rich men's hobbies. Throw money at it.  But that's me and knowing what I know of the Nats situation regarding payroll I'd rather see money, which they'll have next year, put elsewhere than relief pitching. Win a goddamn series with the bats that hit every inning and the arms that should throw at least 2/3rds of your innings.

Out of Box Idea 
The Drew Storen idea, draft a very successful D1 college closer -sign him - move him pretty much immediately to that role in majors, almost worked out. In fact I'd argue it did... until set up for failure he became the goat of the 2012 NLDS, then had management be convinced to free agent sign over him, and then couldn't handle it mentally. Why not try again hoping this time to not have the manager set the guy up for failure, not to have the organization show zero faith in the player despite a dominant season, and not to have the player have such a fragile mental make-up that a couple year demotion doesn't essentially break him?

Who's the lucky Nats 2nd half closer currently toiling away in college? I don't know. Maybe Bryan Young of Missouri State? Someone will show.


Carl said...

I kind of like the idea of Treinen as closer, but I also like his propensity to get double-play grounders more in the earlier innings. Would much rather see him used to potentially get out of existing jams, rather than become the 9th-inning nobody-on guy.

Dr Trea (formerly #werthquake) said...

Is Tony Watson still available from the buccos? Haven't heard much from him lately. Holland or Doolittle are the best options at this point imo. I love Doolittle... But hard to rely on his health.

PotomacFan said...

Treinen is better as a high leverage guy, when a double play is needed.

Kelley was good last year, but he has a delicate arm, and Dusty typically gave him rest between outings. He probably should not pitch two games in a row, and he definitely cannot pitch three games in a row.

How about Sammy Solis? He was terrific in the second half of the season, and he is hardly a lefty only specialist. And he can get 4 - 6 outs if needed.

Koda Glover is in the mix. If his arm is healthy, he has great stuff. But, he's probably too young to be put into the closer role.

In all events, even if Nats don't get a closer, they need more arms for the 7th and 8th innings. And for the playoffs, they are going to need a stud, preferably a multiple inning guy. If Cleveland has a bad year, will Andrew Miller be available? Nats probably won't give up what it takes to get him. Same for Zach Britton.

Fries said...

I'm of the opinion that Koda can be the closer, I really like his stuff. Get him healthy, get him some reps, and I think he's able to be the closer of the future.

But I agree with PotomacFan, I'm more worried about the 7th/8th, especially since none of our starters regularly go 7 innings except for Roark. But who's good year to year changes so much, so it's hard to really gamble on signing those kinds of players

ClassOf87 said...

I would just argue that a "we'll figure it out on the fly" approach isn't optimal for a team with World Series aspirations and a limited window in which to win one. Is Treinen really the "best option" or "the best option we/they are willing to spend on?" Those are two different things. By all accounts the Nats were all in on Jansen so I can't fault them for not getting him when they offered more money. But I would feel a lot better about next year with a proven commodity at the back end of the bullpen.

JE34 said...

This has to mean that Rizzo will go shopping at the trade deadline, and they think they can outperform the NL East until then. All in all, that's not a terrible strategy... they should be better than the Mets, Fish, Phils, and Braves. SHOULD. (I'm insane for being concerned about the Braves bats, right?)

G Cracka X said...

I think Harper is spot on. In an ideal world, the Nats would have no budgetary constraints and could have thrown money at whoever they wanted. In the real world, they do. I would have liked to have had Jansen or Melancon on the roster for 2017, but I'm also happy that management didn't overpay.

I like the idea of the Nats exploring the cost to get Watson (who somehow had negative fWAR last year....)

JW said...

To build on Classof87's comment, I also find it troubling that, for the past couple of years at least, the Nats bullpen approach has basically been to re-build it each year. I get that there are lots of bullpen arms out there, but essentially having to a significant number of new arms every year to me just doesn't seem like the best way to do it. I'm pretty firmly in the camp of the bullpen matters less than some other parts of the team (lineup), but it's also not like you can just put off dealing with it until the last minute. There needs to be a plan (and contingencies) if you intend on competing.

It's a bit of the same approach to the bench. Cobble it together each year.

DezoPenguin said...

I'd be in more of a panic about the bullpen if the World Series hadn't just been won by a team where the manager trusted only three relievers in the postseason, two of whom (Chapman, Montgomery) were mid-season acquisitions and the third (Edwards) was a rookie...and Chapman's performance wasn't screaming "PAY THE MAN $92M."

Treinen, Kelley, Glover, Solis, and Perez are at least a solid start to the pen. I'm mostly worried about Kelley's health among all of that.

We tried to give Melancon money to fix the problem, but the Giants gave him more. We tried to give Jansen money to fix the problem, but the Dodgers gave him...less money. The Orioles aren't going to trade us Britton. Other trade options for closer are, honestly, more expensive than they'd be worth. I'd certainly kick the tires on Ziegler (though at age 37 and the last genuine closer standing, he's going to be risky and pricey), Belisle, Carlos Torres...maybe consider Feldman as the new Petit for long man/emergency starter (or bring Latos back), but at this point I'd run with Treinen or Kelley and basically fill in the middle with functional arms and have Glover as the dark horse to take over...then revisit the issue mid-season if need be.

Anonymous said...

Obviously Holland has signed with the White Sox by now. This does mean they're setting up to trade Robertson somewhere, but Harper is kinda right that the Nats don't really have the pieces left to acquire him (unless they do the unthinkable and trade Robles).

The market is quickly thinning. I think they should pony up the dollars for Brad Ziegler. He's probably as good as any RPs left out there, and the division isn't very familiar with him.

Harper said...

Anon - DEREK Holland signed with White Sox.

Josh Higham said...

I really, really want to like Treinen. And I do, in a 7th inning jam. And I wouldn't actually mind too much if he was "the closer" but Dusty used him Miller style. Blake in the 9th of a close game that didn't have many high pressure spots in the middle innings, but use him for 1 2/3 in the 6th and 7th if a man gets on and the current pitcher doesn't have it. I don't see Dusty trying something new though. He's too much like our boy Matt Williams in his approach to managing to consistently do a trendy thing that statheads like.

Zimmerman11 said...

If Treinen is our best bullpen option, and Dusty is going to use him in high leverage situations in earlier innings, then we're in good shape. Leave the easy inning to Kelly, and have Solis for a tough lefty. I'm OK with taking a flier on Holland, and/or waiting 'til midseason to address the position (if things don't work out w/ the in-house options). Can't use a closer like Superman the whole season.

Anonymous said...

Here's the answer - bring back Rafael Soriano!

But seriously, even though I like Kelly and Treinen, I would feel much better if they added a reliable arm or two to the pen.

This is my first post here, but I've been reading for a long time - love the blog Harper!

DezoPenguin said...

Marlins signed Ziegler for 2/$16M. That seems perfectly reasonable given his skills, age, and the current market. That's an offer we should have at least made. They also got Tazawa for 2/$12M, which is a gamble I'd rather not take given his declining performance over the past two years in Boston.

With Z signed, though, that basically shuts off the idea of picking up a free-agent closer. Nobody else is worth plugging in ahead of Kelley or Treinen, though there's still a few competent depth pieces that could strengthen the middle or back end of the relief rotation. A trade would likely cost more than it would be worth, especially with the top pieces unavailable.

Anonymous said...

Ohhhkay, so now the Nationals let Ziegler get away. I wonder if they're actually away that Melancon is no longer on their roster. They've shown a tremendous lack of urgency in addressing a major hole.

So what now? Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla are still out there. LOL what else? 42 year old Joe Nathan is still out there. Ugh. Fernando Salas could be worth the flier...but you know, there are still two familiar faces out there: their names are Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen! Is a reunion with one or both in order here??

PotomacFan said...

Anonymous: you need a better "handle".

Anonymous said...

^^^Hey you can take my advice or leave it. All I see is your GM missing one opportunity after another so far this winter

John C. said...

"Your GM?" So you're not even a Nats fan?

Closers are both overvalued and fungible. The Giants won three WS in five years with three different closers. The Nats have tried the big money closer routine over and over, with pretty indifferent results. And even having the shutdown closer last season didn't get them through the NLDS - there's no way to really guarantee a playoff result.

So try this on: perhaps Rizzo doesn't "seem" to feel urgency (although it seems pretty certain that they were in on Melancon and Jansen, they just walked away when they would have had to throw good money after bad to get it done). But perhaps that's because he knows more than any of us what he has, what's available, and what makes sense cost wise.

I can't help but notice that neither Chapman nor Miller were actually with the Cubs or Indians until the trade deadline. The Nats don't need to solve the closer problem in December.

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