Bryce Harper won’t wear a Nationals uniform this season, but an ideal consolation for D.C.-area fans is still sitting out there on the free-agent market.
Washington is the latest club to emerge from the carousel of teams linked to All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel over the past four months, with MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal reporting this past weekend that the Nationals “remain interested” in Kimbrel and ESPN’s Keith Law adding that the two sides could be “further down the road than reported.” On Sunday, MLB.com’s Jamal Collier correctly pointed out the biggest roadblock, which is that signing Kimbrel would almost surely put the Nats over the competitive balance tax threshold for a third straight year, meaning the club would pay a 50 percent tax on every dollar they spend over that limit.
But some players are worth opening the billfold for, and Kimbrel might just be one of them -- and not just because of his talent alone. Here’s a few reasons why this pairing between he and the Nationals makes sense:
It could give Washington the game’s best 'closer tandem'
The Nats, as you might recall, already have a closer. Sean Doolittle has mastered the high fastball in recent years to the point where he’s built a legitimate case as baseball’s best closer. Doolittle finished within MLB’s top five relievers in expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) -- Statcast’s best all-purpose metric based on quality of contact, strikeouts and walks -- in each of the previous two campaigns (he was No. 1 in 2018).
If the Nationals sign Kimbrel, manager Dave Martinez could bump Doolittle to the eighth inning or keep his incumbent closer in the ninth and make Kimbrel a setup man. But since each pitcher throws from a different side of the rubber, the more likely answer is that they would switch off depending on matchups. Fewer and fewer teams are depending on one closer; it’s easy to see the Astros rotating Roberto Osuna and Ryan Pressly, the Phillies doing the same with Seranthony Domínguez and David Robertson and the Cardinals platooning righty Jordan Hicks and lefty Andrew Miller, to cite a few examples. The defending World Series champion Red Sox could have a closer-by-committee situation if they don’t re-sign Kimbrel -- and they could still wind up completely fine as they were last October.
Perhaps concerns about Kimbrel’s waning velocity and command are some of the big reasons a team hasn’t met his asking price. If that’s the case, is there a better situation for Kimbrel to walk into than a save-share situation with another elite closer who helps him limit his innings? Kimbrel and Doolittle employ fairly similar strategies (pound the zone with high heat; rack up whiffs and limit homers), and teams might have viewed this pairing as a redundancy not too long ago. But in this current climate of bullpen stockpiling, the Nationals could guarantee themselves a dominant closer being available nearly every day of the week.
The Nationals’ bullpen depth behind Doolittle is shaky
The back end of Washington’s ‘pen is loaded with name-brand potential. It’s also saddled with question marks. Former Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal came out throwing triple-digits for the Nats in Spring Training, but he also missed all of 2018 recovering from Tommy John surgery. Trade acquisition Kyle Barraclough owns some electric stuff (a 29.8 percent career strikeout rate), but has often shown trouble harnessing it (he’s also walked 14.3 percent of hitters). Koda Glover (63 total appearances over his first three seasons) received yet another MRI last week after feeling tightness in his elbow, and righty Justin Miller -- a pleasant surprise from ’18 -- is dealing with a lower-back strain early in camp.
The Nationals’ bullpen was the team’s biggest Achilles heel through the last years of the Harper era, tying for 26th by FanGraphs’ version of WAR in 2018. One injury or slip-up from the back three of Barraclough, Rosenthal or Doolittle could saddle the club again, and that relates to the biggest point here …
Washington has little margin for error
It’s easy to look at the Nationals’ roster and believe they’re one of the National League’s most talented teams again -- but it’s not by much. The Nats happen to play in the NL East, which could be baseball’s toughest division (Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections has them tied atop the NL East with the Phillies at 89 wins; FanGraphs believes they’ll be four wins better than Philly, as well as in a league where the Marlins might be the only club that’s in a full rebuilding stage.
Harper’s departure also points to a larger transition period looming in D.C. One never wants to bet against Max Scherzer, but he’s entering his age-34 season after topping 200 innings in six consecutive campaigns. It’s a walk year for franchise cornerstone Anthony Rendon, unless the front office can ink him to an extension. Even Trea Turner, hard as it is to believe, is approaching his 26th birthday this summer. The future is somewhat bright with Juan Soto and Victor Robles on their way up, but while it might be unfair to ask them to carry the team in the immediate future, Kimbrel and Patrick Corbin could help that transition go a little smoother.
Signing Kimbrel would extend the Nationals’ bullpen by one more inning, possibly taking a little pressure off the rotation trio of Scherzer, Corbin and Stephen Strasburg that’s set to make nearly $87 million combined this season. It could bolster an area that’s held the club back the most in recent times. It could take some of the sting out of having to face Harper in a rival’s uniform on 19 occasions this year.
There’s question marks with Kimbrel, no doubt. He would be a costly expenditure (though the Nats’ luxury-tax bill last year was just $2.4 million). But there’s also that pesky clock ticking in Washington, D.C. -- the one that’s ticked since the city last saw a World Series champion in 1924. Wouldn’t it be worth the organization's while to do everything possible to put that clock to rest, while it is still within its competitive window to do so?