Nationals need to repair bullpen, but how?

For those who (maybe mercifully) missed it, a brief recap of the Nationals relief pitching soap opera:

The bullpen breakdown started in the offseason and in the spring, when the Nationals traded set-up guy Tyler Clippard to Oakland for Yunel Escobar.

(Escobar had a career year on offense and a poor year on defense; Clippard had a good but not great half-season in Oakland, and then went on to blow a handful of critical moments with the Mets. Clippard’s track record as a set-up guy was stellar, though – and this goes to a much broader point about the extreme difficulty of bullpen-making in the first place.)

Trading Clippard was not catastrophic; that alone cannot be blamed for the cratering of the Nationals ‘pen. Ex-Blue Jay Casey Janssen was brought in to replace him; Janssen’s track record indicated he could be a passable replacement.

When Craig Stammen went down with a season-ending forearm injury, the Nationals lost an often-overlooked righty; a pitcher who is not necessarily dominant, but is durable and effective and knows the role.

From 2012 to 2014, Stammen averaged 81 innings pitched, averaged 8.2 strikeouts per nine, averaged a fielding independent ERA of 3.16, and a WHIP of 1.249. Those are not devastating numbers, but they are highly competent numbers, and high-level competence matters.

Losing Stammen began a shuffling of roles; Tanner Roark never settled into any area in either the pen or starting rotation, making spot starts and getting his first career save, working on short rest and then being stretched out for longer outings.

Meanwhile, long-time closer Drew Storen, the now-departed Janssen, the veteran lefty one-out guy (LOOGY!) Matt Thornton, the promising but enigmatic Blake Treinen, the now-recovering Aaron Barrett all took turns faltering. It must be noted that Storen had a phenomenal first half, but the club was having trouble keeping leads for Storen to save, and Rizzo, perhaps haunted as well by the ghosts of 2012 and 2014, wanted reinforcements.

So, at the mid-season trading deadline, Rizzo attempted to execute trades for some of the game’s elite relievers: Craig Kimbrel and-or Aroldis Chapman, he of the 105-miles per hour fastball.

The asking prices for Kimbrel and Chapman were – reportedly – some of the Nationals elite prospects in Trea Turner and Lucas Giolito. Absolutely unwilling to part with such critical future building blocks, Rizzo settled on Philadelphia’s Jonathan Papelbon, and the results were…

… ugly.

In the end, Nationals ‘pen was simply a roller coaster; a rotating door of names who cumulatively were less than the sum of their parts.

When the 2015 campaign came to its end, naturally, the call was obvious: Rizzo must somehow re-do the bullpen. Somehow, somewhere, some way, Rizzo must find a reset button; must Find Answers Somewhere.

“Rebuild the bullpen” is, as with many things in life, much easier to say than to execute. Baseball Prospectus has this to say about bullpen construction:

Investing in relievers is the sport’s equivalent of subprime lending; it’s simply not a safe proposition.

The reason behind this is entirely to do with the nature of “small sample size.” By way of example: Baltimore’s star reliever Darren O’Day pitched 65 innings in 2015; Nationals ace Max Scherzer pitched 228, meaning that Scherzer pitched about 3.5 times more innings than the Baltimore relief ace.

Fewer innings pitched mean every blip of BAPIP, every walk, every ball and strike, every missed call, every freak bounce, become perilously magnified.

Recall that the Mets’ Jeurys Familia was essentially unhittable against the Cubs in the National League Championship Series – and promptly went on to blow three saves in the World Series (though he did in fact give up only one earned run, and two of his blown saves were influenced by extremely poor defense).

Other than (maybe) the Dodgers, a baseball club lives in a world with a fixed budget. Allocating that budget responsibly is a huge part of running a club successfully. Sinking money into the ultra-volatile marketplace of relief pitching, a place where track record and “past performance” are so variable, could hardly be called efficient or responsible.

So, rather than essentially throwing money into the ether, a team should first and foremost look internally for a solution.

Who could the Nationals turn to?

First, the Nationals still have two maligned but talented relievers on their hands and have to do something with them.

It’s possible that for reasons of office politics and performance, both Papelbon and Storen have to be dealt. This is easy to suggest. Doing it is another matter.

Trading Papelbon could be extremely complex, and not just because of his personality. He also stands to make $11 million next year. Some team might be interested in him if the Nationals were willing to absorb some of that salary, but would Nationals ownership stand for that?

Meanwhile, Storen is a talented pitcher, with a mid-90s fastball and a devastating slider. Unfortunately, he’s also had a few equally devastating public meltdowns in high-leverage situations, situations that he’s getting paid to complete successfully. For his part, he was less than thrilled about being shifted to eighth inning duties. He could get the trade he reportedly wants, but the Nationals would hardly be dealing him from a position of strength.

New manager Dusty Baker is known for merging teams; he is known for handling huge, intense personalities. Could Baker be just the right guy to make the Papelbon-Storen experiment work?

The fans might hate this, at least at first. But the fans aren’t in charge of running the club, and making the Papelbon-Storen experiment work would be a huge boon for the Nationals, as the team could get better by doing nothing.

The best internal candidate for soon-to-be bullpen ace is a little-known 24-year-old lefty, Felipe Rivero.

Rivero boasts a massive fastball that touched 99 mph a few times, along with a slider and a changeup. He finished 2015 with a strong 43/11 K/BB ratio, while yielding just two home runs in 48 innings of work. As a former starter, he also showed the ability to lock down six-out saves. Rivero might have looked a bit overwhelmed in spots, but this was his first season relieving, and the results were promising far more often than not.

When healthy, Sammy Solis was another strike zone-pounding, effective lefty. His health, however, has been a question mark.

Treinen has a profound sinker that hits the high 90s, but will he ever be consistent? Will ever be able to get lefties out?

The Nationals need to see more of Abel de los Santos – who closed for the Double-A squad. He thew a handful of pitches at the big-league level, but not nearly enough to know much. Presumably, we’ll be seeing a lot of him in Spring Training.

Will Thornton retire? His numbers, while good, tailed off in 2015. And how will Aaron Barrett’s reconstructed elbow recover?

A slightly more exotic plan for the Nationals could be trying to bring along prized pitching prospects Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito – out of the bullpen, along the lines of what Toronto did this past year with Aaron Sanchez.

Yes, this would raise issues of service time and contracts, and no, neither Lopez nor Giolito might be good out of the ‘pen. But given how terribly wrong 2015 went – are they not worth a long look? Both Lopez and Giolito boast huge velocities, and with Giolito especially, strong secondary pitches. Working them out of the bullpen could control their overall workload while they refine their game at the big-league level.

Far more likely, Nats brass would prefer to keep both developing in Double-A, where both Lopez and Giolito experienced some growing pains in 2015.

As Baker can be an “x” factor in the Storen-Papelbon situation, new pitching coach Mike Maddux is definitely another “x” factor with further developing the talent the Nationals have on hand. Maddux turned Neftali Feliz into a bullpen ace, and generally did a magnificent job developing pitching in offense-friendly Texas.

Externally, there are options, of course. Darren O’Day is the first, obvious name that the Nationals will covet, along with just about any team seeking a bullpen boost.

O’Day doesn’t have huge velocity; has fastball sits in the high 80s, but he pounds the strike zone down, and his delivery helps keep hitters off-balance as well. O’Day seems like a logical fit to stay in the Mid-Atlantic region. His wife works as a political correspondent out of Washington D.C.

He’s coming off an all-around excellent 2015 campaign, where he set career marks in ERA, and he struck out a career-high 11.3 batters per nine innings last season; a number well above his career 8.7 mark. O’Day, 33, has been a durable asset for Baltimore, pitching between 65 and 68 innings each of the last four seasons, with WHIPs hovering between 0.8 and 1.0. Any way you cut it, O’Day is showing no signs of tapering off, and would be a great get – at a price.

Other outside names to consider:

San Diego picked up the club option on veteran set-up guy Joaquin Benoit, but they’re rumored to be willing to part with him. (And he certainly would cost less than Kimbrel.)

If Cincinnati is in full-rebuild mode, might Rizzo and the Nationals make another run at Chapman? Why not?

Milwaukee has several names that would be appealing to clubs in need of bullpen assets: Francisco Rodriguez, Will Smith and Neal Cotts all put together compelling 2015s, and would be appealing trade targets for bullpen-starved teams, too.

Looking over these options, the fact remains that the best move Rizzo could make is simply to get more out of assets presently exist. And in Baker and Maddux, there can be little doubt that an outstanding manager-pitching coach tandem exists in D.C. It is hardly unreasonable to think the best bullpen move the Nationals could make, has already been made.

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