Inbox: How can the Nats fix bullpen's struggles?

Beat reporter Jamal Collier answers fan questions

April 5th, 2019

NEW YORK -- After starting the season 0-2, the Nationals have won three of their last four games to head into their Friday off-day at .500. They are feeling better about themselves after the slow start, but also realizing they need to correct a few things to reach their lofty goals for this season.

That starts in the bullpen, where Nats relievers have combined for a 9.64 ERA in the first six games. It’s also where today’s Nationals Inbox begins, as fans start to wonder whether help is on the way or if one of Washington’s biggest offseason additions in the ‘pen will be the answer.

I don’t think the Nationals’ stance has changed at all from the end of Spring Training. Exceeding the competitive balance tax has been a non-starter for club ownership and I don’t think six games is enough for them to panic. The Nationals still have faith in the relievers they brought in during the offseason -- Tony Sipp, Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal (more on him in a bit). While I think there are those in the front office who would love to add Kimbrel, and the opening week of the season suggests he could be a huge assist, I haven’t gotten any indication it’s become more realistic to see Kimbrel in D.C. It’s also still unclear what kind of contract demands Kimbrel is currently seeking and how those demands might be different, or not, from what they were this winter.

This question is a bit facetious, but the Nats are trying to figure out how to get Rosenthal right after he has failed to record an out against the first seven batters he’s faced. He’s given up four hits and walked three batters and each of them have come around to score, prompting manager Dave Martinez to say earlier this week that he might have to start using Rosenthal in lower-leverage situations to ease him back into action.

The Nationals seem encouraged that Rosenthal is still throwing hard -- his fastball is still in the upper 90s routinely -- so they know the arm strength is there. They just need him to harness his control more, and they eventually believe he will be their setup man in front of Sean Doolittle.

“I think his stuff is there and I think the endurance is getting there,” Nationals general manager and president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo said. “I think durability is getting there, but he hasn't pitched in two years. We've got to knock the rust off. We know he's a capable pitcher, he's a healthy pitcher. We need to knock the rust off him and get to him perform the way we think he can.”

It’s tough to put an exact date on this, but he represents a clear upgrade over what the Nationals have on the field and I don’t think the Nats will hesitate to promote him. I know some people are wondering if him still being in the Minors is an issue of service time, but the Nats have never operated that way. Think about Trea Turner’s promotion in 2015, Juan Soto’s last year or even Victor Robles’ this year. Rizzo is fond of saying the player will let them know when they’re ready by his play on the field, and while Kieboom’s bat certainly seems to fit the part, he committed 26 errors in 118 games at shortstop in the Minor Leagues last year.

So, it’s understandable to see he needs some refinement, especially as Washington attempts to teach him second base as well. I’d still bet on sometime later this summer, but even after Turner’s injury, the team is still in a position where it doesn’t have to rush him to the big leagues until he forces its hand a bit by playing well in the Minors.

“Offensively he had a great spring and a great Arizona Fall League,” Rizzo said. “He’s very, very close to becoming Major League ready. We think he just needs a few more reps at the position. We’re going to see him sooner rather than later. We’re not afraid of timelines. We’re not afraid of putting young players in the big leagues. When we feel he’s ready, we’ll bring him.”

I do think getting accustomed to the starters has gone pretty smoothly for both catchers. They’re veterans who have been around for a long time, and this is a veteran staff that knows what it wants, so I don’t think there’s going to be much of an adjustment period with either of them. Suzuki and Anibal Sanchez will likely be paired together because of their familiarity last year in Atlanta, but Suzuki has also worked with Strasburg in the past and had success. I’d expect Martinez to mix and match more based on who is doing better at the plate more often than pitcher preferences, because I think the starters enjoy throwing to both.

Austen Williams was the last player cut in Spring Training so I’d guess that he will be one of the first, if not the first, player called up when the Nats need a bullpen arm. Remember that in eight games this spring Williams did not allow a run in 7 2/3 innings, with seven strikeouts and zero walks. He got a brief taste of the big leagues last September and left an impression on Martinez. If the bullpen continues to struggle and the Nationals shuffle their relievers, Williams is likely to be one of the first players called up.

Taylor began his Minor League rehab assignment on Thursday with Double-A Harrisburg and went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts. I’m speculating, but I’d guess Washington wants him to at least get a few games under his belt, perhaps meeting the team in Philadelphia at the earliest, although no one has provided any sort of timetable. Taylor has not played since he injured his left knee and hip making a diving play in the outfield on March 14 and the Nationals want him to get extra reps in the outfield before he is activated.