Four weeks that will decide the fate of the Washington Nationals

Oct 10, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; The Washington Nationals bullpen watches during the ninth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game three of the 2016 NLDS playoff baseball series at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 10, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; The Washington Nationals bullpen watches during the ninth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game three of the 2016 NLDS playoff baseball series at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

Before the Washington Nationals announced the postponement of their game with the Philadelphia Phillies they announced four roster moves.  In the back-end of the bullpen, Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover were activated off the disabled list while Matt Grace and A.J. Cole were optioned to Triple-A Syracuse.

In the off-season, after attempting to sign Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman, Mike Rizzo decided that the Washington Nationals had the arms necessary within their own organization to handle the 7th, 8th and 9th inning. Ultimately, Dusty Baker decided that Blake Treinen would pitch the 9th as the closer and Kelley and Glover would pitch the 7th and the 8th. Sammy Solis and Oliver Perez were supposed to be situational lefties, while Jeremy Guthrie, Joe Blanton and Enny Romero would round out the bullpen. In a word it’s been a disaster.

Blake Treinen was replaced as the closer after holding the job for less than 3 weeks. In eight games as the closer Treinen pitched to a 7.11 ERA in 6 1/3 innings. Blake also walked six batters and had seven strikeouts before his demotion.

Next man up for the closer’s job was Shawn Kelley. Kelley (6.00 ERA) had not pitched much better than Treinen but his demeanor was much better suited for the role. With a history of two Tommy John surgeries, the fear with Shawn closing games was overuse. After only two weeks as the Nationals closer, Kelley first sat out with an illness. Then while warming up for a comeback, he strained his back.

Act 2

Kelley (2-0, 5.40, 3 Saves, 1.10 WHIP) was placed on the 10 day DL backdated to May 2 while Koda Glover (0-1, 4.15, 2 Saves, 0.92) and Sammy Solis (0-0, 8.31, 1.62 WHIP) were already on the DL. These two moves left the Nationals without a closer.  Treinen (0-1, 8.10, 3 Saves, 2.22 WHIP) had shown little improvement since his demotion, Jeremy Guthrie had been released, Joe Blanton (0-2, 9.75, 1.92 WHIP) could not get anyone out or keep the ball in the park, Enny Romero (2-1, 5.28, 1 Save, 1.50 WHIP) showed very little command of his upper 90’s fastball, and so on and so on and so on. Finally, the Nationals went to veteran Matt Albers (2-0, 0.69, 1 Save, 0.54 WHIP) for the save.

Just Pitch Better

In the midst of the chaos in the bullpen, Mike Rizzo was interviewed and classically said, “They have to pitch better.” That logic sure would make a General Manager’s job easier.  Rizzo continues to insist that the Washington Nationals have all the arms they need in the bullpen. Now that everyone is back except for Sammy Solis, the Nationals have two weeks to right the ship or in the two weeks before the trading deadline they will have to ship more of their prospects away to get one or more pieces for the bullpen.

In the first 34 games of the season the Washington Nationals have gone 22-12. Their bullpen is ranked last in the National League and next to last in all of Major League Baseball. The National’s relievers have pitched to a 5.40 ERA with opponents batting .284 against them. They have given up 20 home runs, allowed opponents to reach base at a .342 OBP and hit to a .839 OPS.  Collectively they have saved just 62.5 percent of their save opportunities and have lost 6 games.

The Short Term Effect

The biggest problem for Washington is the short term and long term morale of the roster. To a man the Nat’s players say they love this team. They love playing for Dusty Baker.  But no one likes losing games that you should be winning. No one likes to be nervous whenever Baker walks to the mound and motions to the bullpen.

Most nights, the starting pitchers pitch their hearts out and leave the game with a lead or within reach of a victory. Nearly every night, unless the offense has scored in double digits, the game ends up being a nail biter or worse. The starting pitchers are throwing 110 or more pitches per game in order to keep the bullpen doors closed. But it gets discouraging.

Naturally, the players show solidarity and don’t call out the relievers. But you can see it in their faces. Even in games in which the Nationals have scored 12 runs the outcome is in doubt until the end.  It causes everyone to press.

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The Long Term Effect

The window of opportunity is closing for the Washington Nationals. Bryce Harper (.372, 10 HR, 29 RBI, 1.213 OPS) will be a free agent following the 2018 season and Scott Boras is talking about unheard of numbers. Jayson Werth (.299, 6 HR, 11 RBI, .900 OPS), Ryan Zimmerman (.393, 13 HR, 34 RBI 1.251 OPS), Daniel Murphy (.331, 6 HR, 30 RBI, .941 OPS), Max Scherzer (4-2, 2.59, 0.88 WHIP), and Gio Gonzalez (3-1, 2.64, 1.33 WHIP) are all over 30 years of age. 2017 is the year that the Nationals need to go all in for a title.

In 2012 when Washington had its best chance to go deep into the playoffs, the brain trust decided to hold Stephen Strasburg out of the playoffs due to an innings limit because of Tommy John surgery. They figured the Nationals would have many more opportunities to participate in the playoffs. Since then Washington has had limited success in the post season.

The Best Chance

This year may be their best chance ever to win it all. The offense, even with the injury to newly acquired Adam Eaton is superb. Their starting rotation includes a true ace in Max Scherzer and a maturing Stephen Strasburg.  Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez give them two more quality arms for the playoffs.

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But there is an elephant in the room and the front office is trying to ignore it. Now that Kelley and Glover are back we shall see. But the Nationals cannot wait too long. If things don’t improve quickly they have to make a move and make it quickly.  Washington cannot risk being left at the altar at the trading deadline. The next two weeks will determine the course they must take. If they mess this up they will sabotage the franchise for years to come.