The Washington Nationals need to sign Craig Kimbrel right now. Not tomorrow, not next week, not in the summer. They need to sign him right now.
The Nationals are 4-5 and in fourth place in the National League East. There have been some aspects of their roster that have impressed, such as their lineup and top of the rotation. On the other hand, their bullpen has been an unmitigated nightmare.
The Nationals have always been plagued by bullpen woes, but they made moves in the offseason to address that weakness. Adding Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, and Tony Sipp, the Nationals felt their bullpen would be a more reliable bunch in 2019. Well, they were dead wrong. Going into their Monday night matchup with the Philadelphia Phillies, the Nationals were 30th in Major League Baseball in bullpen ERA (10.80), 27th in strikeouts (25), and 30th in opponent batting average (.365).
Rosenthal literally owns an ERA of infinity. He has surrendered seven runs while allowing the eight batters he has faced to get on base; Sipp owns a 15.43 ERA and 2.57 WHIP; Matt Grace owns a 13.50 ERA and 2.70 WHIP; Wander Suero owns a 12.00 ERA; Justin Miller owns a 5.06 ERA and surrendered back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning of the Nationals’ Saturday afternoon matchup with the New York Mets — which tied the game and led to the Mets completing a two-run comeback in the inning.With bullpen troubles yet again plaguing the @Nationals, @RPStratakos writes on how Washington needs to sign Craig Kimbrel right away.Click To Tweet
Sunday afternoon the Nationals held a 12-1 lead on the Mets going into the bottom of the seventh inning and ended up having to use their closer, Sean Doolittle, an out into the ninth inning; that’s disturbingly bad. Outside of Doolittle (who hasn’t surrendered an earned run in four appearances) and Barraclough (who owns a 1.80 ERA), manager Dave Martinez has no one who he can rely on to get an out in his bullpen.
If the Nationals wait until the MLB trade deadline, or even another month, to address their bullpen, they could watch the Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, and Atlanta Braves get a comfortable lead ahead of them in the NL East. Their bullpen has already been the reason for two of their losses this season and could’ve easily blown three others. This isn’t an early season slump; it’s an Achilles heel that teams are continuing to exploit at a historic rate. It’s up to general manager Mike Rizzo to do something about it.
Now, last season was a shaky year for Kimbrel, in the postseason in particular, as he recorded an abysmal 5.91 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in the nine appearances he made for the Boston Red Sox en route to their World Series championship. But the postseason blunders aside, Kimbrel has been one of the most dominant backend relievers in the sport this decade.
He has an overpowering fastball, gets great movement on his curveball, and is one of the most intimidating relievers the sport has to offer. Kimbrel also does an exceptional job at keeping runners off base and records strikeouts at a high clip. His presence in the Nationals bullpen would be a godsend.
In theory, adding Kimbrel doesn’t make sense for the Nationals given Doolittle’s presence, but Martinez can utilize the All-Star relievers for two innings apiece when they make an appearance. Say a Nationals starter gets through seven innings, or the team holds a lead through the seventh inning, Martinez can use Doolittle for two innings to finish the game. If they find themselves in the same situation the ensuing game, Kimbrel pitches the final two innings, or vice versa.
Some of the best teams in MLB have their backend relievers pitch multiple innings, or at least more than one. The perfect example is Milwaukee Brewers flamethrower Josh Hader. He’s one of the most unhittable pitchers in the sport, yet his manager, Craig Counsell, at times, leaves him on the hill to pitch the eighth and ninth inning, and it works.
Doolittle and Kimbrel are two of the best backend relievers in the sport. They can’t each pitch two innings every other, or every third game? Signing the hard-throwing right-hander also prevents the Mets, Phillies, and Braves from upgrading their bullpens.
If the Nationals bullpen can, at the very least, be a respectable bunch they can compete in the NL. They have a dynamite starting rotation with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, and Jeremy Hellickson. Meanwhile, their lineup features the likes of Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Eaton, Victor Robles and, when healthy, Trea Turner.
The biggest hurdle the Nationals have to overcome, when it comes to signing Kimbrel, is the money implications of potentially doing so.
While Kimbrel doesn’t have leverage in contract talks given that he’s unemployed in April, he will likely cost the Nationals an eight-figure amount per season, or at least a substantial one for a reliever. For the time being, the franchise is roughly $5 million away from the luxury tax threshold of $206 million. If they give Kimbrel more than $5 million a season, every dollar they spend beyond the $5 million is doubled. For example, if the Nationals give him a contract worth $10 million a season, they have to pay MLB another $5 million. According to MLB Trade Rumors, they would also lose their 2019 third- and sixth-round picks in this year’s first-year player draft. Plus, they have to worry about re-signing Rendon after this season.
Championships come at the expense of spending money and taking chances. If the Nationals don’t sign Kimbrel, or make an enormous move to improve their bullpen, they won’t have a chance at winning the World Series. So, what’s more extreme: going into the luxury tax, or standing by and doing nothing about an incompetent bullpen that has the potential to wreck your season?