The Washington Nationals bullpen has always been an area of inconsistency and concern, last season especially. After pitching to an ERA over five going into the month of July, general manager Mike Rizzo went out and acquired three relievers to shore up their bullpen (Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from the Oakland Athletics and Brandon Kintzler from the Minnesota Twins). And, impressively, Rizzo and the Nationals will head into next season with that bullpen trio still in place — which is something this franchise has struggled to do in the past.
Doolittle, Madson, and Kintzler all contributed and produced for the Nats, Doolittle in particular.
The southpaw, Doolittle, quickly took on the role of being the team’s closer and excelled. Converting 21 of 22 save opportunities, while pitching to a career-best 2.40 ERA and 1.00 WHIP and recording 31 strikeouts in 31.0 innings pitched, the lefty was an instant cure to the Nats’ ninth-inning woes. And despite the team being eliminated in the NLDS, Doolittle was a bright spot.
Not surrendering a single run and allowing just one baserunner in three appearances, Doolittle took care of business when called upon. Whether it be his fastball, which hits as high as 95-96 mph, or his nasty breaking pitches, the lefty was a crafty and productive presence in the ninth. Under contract through the year 2020 and due roughly $17 million in total, Doolittle will man the closer role in the years to come — which is an asset for first-year manager Dave Martinez.
The other bullpen arm acquired from Oakland, Madson, was a welcome addition to their pen, too. Pitching to a 1.37 ERA and 0.80 WHIP, while recording 28 strikeouts in 19.2 innings pitched, the righty was an overpowering presence on the rubber. The veteran’s ability to come in and get the ball to Doolittle in the ninth was comforting for manager Dusty Baker, who was running out of places to turn for late-inning execution. Under contract through the 2018 season, the righty will look to continue that high-level of production next year in the nation’s capital.
Then there’s Kintzler. Acquired seconds before the MLB trading deadline, the All-Star reliever was another asset for the Nats bullpen in the second half of the season. While he was rattled a bit at times, being that he’s not a strikeout pitcher, the righty still pitched to a 3.46 ERA and was another seventh/eighth inning option, which added depth to their pen. Re-upping with Washington on a two-year, $10 million deal, Kintzler will likely remain in a set-up role alongside Madson and potentially lefty Enny Romero.
In the past, the Nats have acquired relievers who have benefited their bullpen for the short-term, but have either not panned out in the long run or left in free agency. In 2015, they acquired Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon, who then went on to choke Bryce Harper and was released midseason of the ensuing year after he was unable to consistently close out games. In 2016, the Nats acquired Pirates closer Mark Melancon and he was great in his brief time with the team. Pitching to a 1.82 ERA and converting 17 of 18 save opportunities, while not surrendering a single run in the playoffs, the righty was dominant in the closer role, but the Nats then lost him to free agency.
This time around, the Nats’ midseason bullpen acquisitions are there to stay. Doolittle is under contract for three more seasons, Madson has another year on his deal, and management was able to re-sign Kintzler.
Bullpen inconsistency and the inability to pull through when it matters most has plagued this franchise in the postseason. Drew Storen blew a two-run lead in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS vs the St. Louis Cardinals. Two years later, Storen couldn’t get the final out of Game 2 of the NLDS versus the San Francisco Giants — leading to another Nationals loss. This past year, the Nats brought Max Scherzer out of the bullpen in a win-or-go-home Game 5 and he gave up four runs.
Just this past year, the Nats were already one of the best teams in the majors, but were being held back by their bullpen’s inability to finish off games. It was as if whoever took the mound in the first had to get through at least seven innings; it was that bad.
With the trio of Doolittle, Madson, and Kintzler all back for at least one more year after being acquired over the summer, the Nats finally have a backend they can rely on to produce and return for another season.
It’s crucial to have a lockdown bullpen and just as important to have a core remain in place; the Nats now have that.