- The Nationals have clubbed their way to the top of the National League, but their disastrous bullpen will ruin them if they can't fix it.
Despite their painful exit against the Dodgers in the 2016 NLDS, the Nationals remained one of top teams in the National League and a postseason favorite for this season. They were coming off a 95-win campaign and had one of baseball's best players (outfielder Bryce Harper), one of the game's most promising young talents (shortstop Trea Turner) and two top starting pitchers to anchor a deep playoff run (righthanders Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg). Add in a trio of reliable veteran hitters (second baseman Daniel Murphy, third baseman Anthony Rendon and outfielder Jayson Werth), and Washington was the clear-cut NL East favorite.
So far things have gone mostly according to plan. Even with newly-acquired outfielder Adam Eaton having been lost to a torn ACL in April, the Nats have built a 7 1/2 game lead in the National League East. Veteran first baseman Ryan Zimmerman has not only rediscovered his form, he is in early Triple Crown contention, tying for the league lead with 13 homers while ranking first in RBIs (36) and batting average (.385). Likewise, Harper is back to his MVP-caliber self following a down year, leading baseball in OPS and trailing Zimmerman in the league's batting title race by a single percentage point.
Still, Washington has what could prove to be a fatal flaw: its bullpen. After last season general manager Mike Rizzo opted against re-signing closer Mark Melancon or trading for a known commodity like the White Sox' David Robertson, but after failing to lure Kenley Jansen away from the Dodgers, the Nats entered the season with a handful of uninspiring relievers like Koda Glover, Shawn Kelley and Blake Treinen vying for the closer's role. Treinen won the job late in spring training, but lost it after posting an 8.10 ERA in his first four outings. After 13 more appearances that's still where his ERA stands, and his 15 earned runs allowed in just 16 1/3 innings is more than starter Gio Gonzalez has surrendered in 51 innings of work.
Since Treinen's demotion, manager Dusty Baker has experimented with several different relievers—Kelley, Glover, Enny Romero and Matt Albers—to try and finish games without drama. It hasn't been working, and there is no ready solution. The latest blown save on Sunday showed how serious the problem is for a team seeking a deep playoff run.
The Nationals entered the first leg of Sunday's doubleheader against the Phillies in D.C. having blown two late leads earlier in the week. They received another strong outing from Gonzalez, who held Philadelphia to one run on four hits over 6 2/3 innings, and home runs from Harper and Turner helped them take a 3-1 lead into the top of the ninth.
Kelley started the inning by surrendering a solo home run to Aaron Altherr that made the score 3–2. After Tommy Joseph popped out, pinch hitter Maikel Franco nearly tied the game by doubling off of the top of the centerfield wall. Cameron Rupp followed Franco's double with one of his own to tie the game, then Kelley walked Freddy Galvis to put runners on first and second with just one out. Baker removed Kelley in favor of Glover—the preseason favorite to win the job—who promptly allowed an RBI single to Ty Kelly that put the Phils in front.
In a flurry of six batters, Gonzalez's outing was wasted and the Nationals went on to lose a game they should have won. In the nightcap, Jacob Turner entered in the eighth inning looking to protect a 4-3 lead only to surrender a two-run triple to Freddy Galvis that cost Scherzer a win. A home run from Washington's Michael A. Taylor in the eighth inning salvaged a 6–5 victory for the Nats and a split of the twinbill, but it did not obscure the ongoing problems with the 'pen. The Nationals relief crew now ranks 28th in bullpen ERA (5.33) and WAR (-0.6) and is allowing a .317 average on batted balls put in play. Not only are opposing teams scoring with ease, they're hitting the ball hard in the process.
Outside of Albers, who has a 0.61 ERA and a 0.55 WHIP in 14 outings, the Nats can't rely on anybody once their starting pitcher exits. Free agent signing Joe Blanton—one of the Dodgers' most reliable relievers during the 2016 season—has been an awful investment to this point (he has a 9.49 ERA and isn't appearing in high-leverage situations), and Kelley's ERA has ballooned from 2.64 last year to 7.15 this season. Treinen has been demoted to mostly mop-up work in an attempt to regain his form, and Romero's inconsistency has left him with a 4.86 ERA that is practically stellar for this group.
Early-season bullpen struggles aren't unusual—the Rangers are another contending team that can't quite figure out how to finish games—and the Nationals still have a cushion with which to work, thanks to the Mets' continued injuries. Still, at some point the Nats will need somebody dependable to work the ninth inning. Right now, the best bet is Albers, who has been their lone dependable cog in middle relief. Perhaps Baker will continue using a closer-by-committee, but eventually the Nats may need to address the issue via trade. Robertson's name will surely pop up as a target, but the White Sox can afford to charge a maximum price, and the Nationals may not want to part with a top prospect like outfielder Victor Robles after having dealt away promising pitchers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez to those same Sox in the deal that brought back Eaton.
The Nationals have won three NL East titles since 2012 but have yet to advance past the Division Series. They can count on having Harper, whom they signed over the weekend to a 2018 contract that avoids arbitration, for at least one more season beyond this one, but their window to win a title could close tight if he leaves. That's all the more reason to fix their leaky bullpen now and not let an opportunity to win a championship slip away.