Nats' bullpen makeover gives Martinez options

August 1st, 2019

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals were always almost certain to do something to address baseball’s worst bullpen. That need has been so glaringly apparent since the start of the season.

The question lingering over these Nats, who have a record of 57-51 and are the second National League Wild Card team, was just how exactly general manager Mike Rizzo would do so.

That answer finally arrived before Wednesday’s Trade Deadline as the Nats acquired three relievers as a part of two trades to overhaul a bullpen on the fly. Washington added lefty and right from Seattle and from Toronto. None of them are huge “difference makers” -- as Rizzo all but acknowledged when he said, “These aren’t the sexiest names in the trade market” -- but they are three solid relievers added to a group in dire need of them. This seems unlikely to raise the ceiling of the Nationals' relief core, but it will at least raise their floor.

“Even though we've had to cover, I think, the fewest innings as a group, as a bullpen,” closer said, “there's still some of us that could use some reinforcements.”

And now a few questions remain for the Nationals for the final two months of the season: How do these pieces all fit? And was it enough, especially if they were holding onto hopes to catch the Braves, who made their own bullpen additions by acquiring Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Chris Martin?

Martinez has options in the bullpen
To win both games of a split-doubleheader during this most recent homestand, manager Dave Martinez was wiling to use both and Doolittle in both the day and night games. It was in some ways an indication of just how few reliable options he believed he had in his bullpen to close out a tight game and bridge the gap from their excellent starting pitching to Doolittle at the end of games.

Well now, Martinez has more he can turn to. The Nats will exchange Elias, Strickland and Hudson for Javy Guerra, Michael Blazek and one more reliever they will have to make a decision on by Friday. It seems almost certain to be one of their two non-closing left-handers, Tony Sipp or Matt Grace, neither of whom have options.

But now Martinez has more pitchers he can turn to and use to match up at the end of the game. Add these additions to a mix that will include Rodney, (132 ERA+ since joining the Nats), (102 ERA+ but a 2.51 ERA in July with eight straight scoreless appearances) and (119 ERA+), and this relief group in front of Doolittle suddenly looks a whole lot more competent.

“These guys are all qualified to pitch the seventh, eighth and the ninth inning,” Rizzo said Wednesday. “They all have saves on their resume, and they're all guys that can get big outs at big times. The role system, I think that'll kind of work itself out. We're just kind of getting our arms around the new acquisitions and see where it falls amongst the way we'll rotate them in the bullpen.”

Did the Nats improve enough?
Rizzo all but acknowledged the Nats were dealing with some restraints, with ownership set on remaining under the competitive balance tax threshold and with a farm system depleted in recent seasons by yearly Deadline bullpen upgrades.

These moves give Martinez more flexibility, but he still lacks an automatic setup man to turn to in front of Doolittle or as the backup closer when Doolittle is unavailable.

Martinez has relied on Rodney and Suero most frequently to pitch the eighth inning in a high-leverage situation, and the Nationals probably didn’t add a surefire better option Wednesday.

Hudson seems most likely to fill that role, in the midst of the best season of his career so far with the Blue Jays, but his 3.00 ERA belies his 4.20 FIP and the second highest walks per nine innings in his career (4.3). Or perhaps Strickland can regain his form after spending most of the year on the injured list. It’s more likely Martinez will have to rely on matchups to navigate the Nationals through the end of games, which will post a test. The second-year manager has has been criticized for his bullpen management in the past.

Now the Nationals will get to see how their new-look bullpen operates over the next two months as D.C. prepares itself for a postseason race during the final two months of the season.