Originally, I had started writing this article while the Nationals still had both Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon slated to pitch in the back of their bullpen. With the news of the trade on Friday night, that sent Storen to Toronto for outfielder Ben Revere, the Nationals bullpen strategy appears to be a little more clear. However, the current setup shouldn’t make Nationals fans feel particularly comfortable, especially given the Papelbon-Harper dugout disagreement near the end of last season. With the trade of Storen, could the Nationals really be keeping Papelbon as their closer for the 2016 season?
According to recent reports, Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo appears content with Papelbon as the team’s closer going forward. However, Rizzo did not explicitly rule out a trade of Papelbon. If this is the case, this leaves the Nationals with quite a different bullpen than the one they started last season with.
Even prior to the trade of Drew Storen, the Nationals had already made quite a few additions to the roster so far this offseason. To go along with returning relievers, such as Felipe Rivero, Aaron Barrett, and Blake Treinen, the Nationals also added four new relievers to the fold. Among those relievers are Shawn Kelley, Trevor Gott, Yusmeiro Petit and Oliver Perez.
The trio of Kelley, Petit and Perez were all signed via free agency, while Gott was acquired in the trade that sent infielder Yunel Escobar to the Los Angeles Angels. As it stands, Perez/Petit will likely operate in long-relief roles, while Perez may be used in a lefty specialist role as well. Both Gott and Kelley, on the other hand, should both operate as potential eighth-inning relievers, competing with the returning trio of Rivero, Barrett, and Treinen for outs in the middle-relief roles. What stands out for the Nationals, even after the trade of Storen, is that the team has options in the back of their bullpen.
Based on this assessment, it appears the Nationals have all the pieces they need in their bullpen going into 2016. However, there are still question marks surrounding Papelbon. Despite the general manager showing his support for Papelbon, and the trade of Storen solidifying Papelbon’s role, it still is unclear if he should be the closer. Coming off a 2015 season in which he choked a teammate, and filed a grievance against the Nationals for the suspension that followed, it isn’t out of the question to ask questions about Papelbon’s role on the team. The Nationals do not have an internal option to replace Papelbon at closer if he is dealt, and nearly all of the elite closers on the market have already been swapped. For better or worse, it seems the Papelbon-Nationals marriage will continue.
Even with questions surrounding Papelbon, the Nationals have built a strong bullpen around the much-maligned closer. With Kelley and Gott, the Nationals have strong arms to add to their already strong trio of Rivero/Barrett/Treinen, who were all successful last season. In Perez and Petit, the Nationals have two pitchers who can serve in a more complimentary role, and pitch more than one inning if the need arises. Petit also could serve well as a spot starter in a pinch. It remains to be seen whether Papelbon will be on the Nationals roster come Opening Day, but, either way, the Nationals have built themselves a strong bullpen for the 2016 season.