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Closer's lone piece missing in Nats' puzzle

MLB.com @RichardJustice

The Nationals are going to win the National League East whether or not they acquire a proven closer. Which makes the issue even more urgent.

The Nationals have a championship-caliber offense, a championship-caliber rotation and an 8 1/2-game division lead. They've got a championship-caliber manager in Dusty Baker. They just have this one thing that needs fixing.

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The Nationals are going to win the National League East whether or not they acquire a proven closer. Which makes the issue even more urgent.

The Nationals have a championship-caliber offense, a championship-caliber rotation and an 8 1/2-game division lead. They've got a championship-caliber manager in Dusty Baker. They just have this one thing that needs fixing.

View Full Game Coverage

Washington's bullpen has a 5.11 ERA, third worst in baseball. The Nationals have converted just 63 percent of their saves chances, 16th-best overall, but not what a championship team needs.

The good news is that this problem is fixable. This is not the best time to make a trade, but it can be done. Teams are still evaluating themselves and deciding whether they're good enough to make a postseason run.

Almost all of the clubs see themselves as one wining streak from contention. That's especially true in the American League, where all 15 teams are within 5 1/2 games of a postseason berth.

For Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, this almost certainly means overpaying, probably by a bunch. One of the reasons the Nationals have won more regular-season games than any other team the past six seasons is that Rizzo has steadfastly maintained the long view.

Because of that, the Nationals have been driven, in part, by a steady stream of talent from the Minors. What they haven't done is win a postseason series.

It's incorrect to make overly large assessments of a franchise based on the small sample size of postseason. Washington has been baseball's best team for 873 regular-season games since the start of 2012. Fourteen postseason games doesn't change that.

Last season, it was Clayton Kershaw walking in from the bullpen on one day of rest to get the final two outs to win an NL Division Series. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had one card to play, and that card happened to be the greatest pitcher of his generation.

Sometimes, though, the time is right to do something bold to take the next step.

Here may be Rizzo's best options:

1. David Robertson, White Sox (3.09 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 10 saves)
He's 32 years old and has averaged 37 saves and a 1.10 WHIP the past three seasons. In his 10th Major League seasons, he's allowing less than a baserunner per inning (.857).

Video: CWS@CLE: Robertson gets out of late-inning jam

He's a different closer than the one who set up Mariano Rivera in New York. His fastball is down a tick or two, to around 91 mph, and he's throwing more curves than ever. But his numbers remain solid.

Here's the downside: White Sox general manager Rick Hahn has not given teams an indication that he's open for business even with Chicago at 27-35.

Rizzo thinned out his Minor League talent when he acquired center fielder Adam Eaton from the White Sox last December. But these two men know each other, and Hahn certainly knows Rizzo's talent.

2. Kelvin Herrera, Royals (5.33 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 13 saves)
This option looks like more of a risk has Herrera has had a couple of tough appearances in recent weeks. He's a reminder that every deal comes with some risk.

Video: DET@KC: Herrera strikes out Miggy to record the save

He's also only 27 years old and under control through the end of 2018. His fastball still registers consistently at 97-98 mph, but he's throwing more sliders and changeups.

Would the Royals deal him? GM Dayton Moore wants to go as far as he can with this group, and he's still within striking distance of a postseason berth.

Moore may be more willing to trade as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches, so the overpay on Rizzo's part would be significant.

3. Mark Melancon, Giants (3.12 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 10 saves)
The Giants are 14 1/2 games behind in the division and 13 in the NL Wild Card race. Would they consider moving the guy who they signed just last offseason? Could Melancon be the guy who helps the Giants upgrade their offense? That discussion is worth a phone call.

Video: SF@CHC: Melancon strikes out Happ to earn the save

4. Alex Colome, Rays (2.05 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 18 saves)
The Rays will listen on almost any of their players despite being tied with the Indians for the AL's second Wild Card berth. This could be the right time to go for Colome with last season's closer, Brad Boxberger, nearing a return from the disabled list. Or perhaps the Nationals would have an interest in Boxberger.

Video: CWS@TB: Colome strikes out Abreu to earn the save

5. Jim Johnson, Braves (3.58 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 13 saves)
Now 33, his career has been reborn the past two seasons in Atlanta. His fastball still sits regularly around 94 mph, and his 1.01 WHIP indicates how good he has been. The Braves haven't given up on this season, but Rizzo can offer a young player who almost certainly could close the deal.

Video: ATL@WSH: Johnson retires Harper to secure the save

6. Sean Doolittle, Athletics (3.12 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, 1 save)
You like gambles? Here you go. He's one of baseball's best closers. He has also been on the DL with shoulder issues three straight seasons. But he's healthy now and plays for a front office that is willing to make a deal. How about a trade that pairs him with Oakland's veteran setup man Ryan Madson in the late innings?

Video: OAK@KC: Doolittle strikes out the side to earn save

Give the Nationals a proven closer, and all those other arms -- good, solid Major League arms, but not closers -- may fall into place to get the ball from the starter to the closer. If you doubt how much one player can change a team, check out the Rockies. Greg Holland's offseason signing hasn't just changed a bullpen. It has, in part, transformed a franchise.

That's the kind of move the Nationals use use at this moment.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Washington Nationals