In 2015, the Washington Nationals’ most glaring weakness was their bullpen.
To put it bluntly, former manager Matt Williams simply couldn’t rely on it, but he was often put in a bind when the starting pitcher faltered. No matter the situation, every game was in doubt when it was put on the arm of a relief pitcher.
So this offseason, beefing up the bullpen has been a focal point in general manager Mike Rizzo’s plan. And in the past 48 hours, he’s made good on his word, signing two relievers and executing a trade for another.
According to Sports Illustrated, Washington sent infielder Yunel Escobar to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for right-handed reliever Trevor Gott. If you’re a fan of historical ironies, the Nationals acquired Escobar in exchange for the ever-popular reliever Tyler Clippard, so what goes around comes around.
In several statistical categories, Escobar posted his best numbers since his rookie season with the Nationals in 2015. He hit a .314/.375/.415 slash line with 56 RBI, 25 doubles and 9 home runs in 139 games. The Nationals didn’t exactly lose in their trade with the Oakland Athletics since they received a plus-.300 hitter in the exchange.
But in the much bigger picture, the trade did hurt them. While Clippard did go on to be traded twice and have a below-average season — by his standards — for the Athletics and eventually New York Mets, he still out-performed a majority of the Nationals’ 2015 bullpen. His 2.92 ERA would have put him third behind Matt Thornton (2.19) and Felipe Rivero (2.79).
And while Escobar was a solid edition and a steady piece of a puzzle that saw many injuries, the depletion of the bullpen, whether by injuries or just lack of talent, was a much bigger problem than the questions facing the infield. Questions like who is the future at second, shortstop and third were far less important that who can they really turn to in the late innings of a game?
Perhaps Gott can be that guy for the Nationals in 2016. In his rookie season with the Angels, he pitched in 48 games, threw 47.2 innings, posted a 3.02 ERA and issued 27 strikeouts to 18 walks. According to Scout.com, his fastball settles between 94-96 MPH, but has been clocked at 98.
Or maybe new manager Dusty Baker can turn to a different right-hander in Shawn Kelley. On Wednesday, the Nationals reportedly struck a three-year, $15 million deal with the seven-year veteran. For the San Diego Padres in 2015, he posted a 2.45 ERA over 51.1 innings with an impressive 11.0 strikeouts per nine innings. That would have tied him for the highest strikeout rate on the team with Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen.
Unlike Gott, the 32-year old Kelley is a seasoned arm that has endured his fair share of experiences in MLB. He joins a relief pitching staff that is a mixed bag of proven minor leaguers and bonafide big leaguers. With his experience, he has the makeup to be a leader.
The third bullpen addition that the Nationals have made in the past 48 hours appears to fill a different role, one left void by Craig Stammen. Late last night, The Washington Post reported that the Nationals agreed to a one-year, $2.5 million show-me deal with right-hander Yusmiero Petit. The club maintains a reported half-million dollar option in 2017.
While Gott and Kelley can play the role of setup or even shutdown, Petit appears to be the guy Baker will have to stretch over the middle innings when a starter loses his head early. In 42 appearances in 2015, he tossed 76 innings, and threw 117 innings over 39 games (12 starts) in 2014. In four seasons with the Giants he’s moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen, and put together a 3.66 ERA with 4.62 strikeout-to-walk ration along the way.
So while the Nationals didn’t land Ben Zobrist, a high-priced free agent second baseman, they have spent their time and money wisely to land three on-paper upgrades to their bullpen. Thursday, it was reported that the Los Angeles Dodgers have moved on from Aroldis Chapman, so perhaps Baker tries to reunite with an old player despite off-field questions.
With the Nationals continuing to re-stock the bullpen, it at least shows they’re looking to put their money in the right place. Last season, they opted to upgrade what was in the field and, in the end, that didn’t get them very far. It’ll be interesting to see what other moves they make as they are reportedly the fourth team in the Jason Heyward sweepstakes and are looking to deal Storen.
But for now, their start to MLB’s silly season and their time at the winter meetings has been well spent.