3. Washington Nationals (55–36, plus-108, LT: 7)
A great team with a loaded lineup and killer rotation, plus the worst bullpen in the game. It was only a matter of time before GM Mike Rizzo went shopping for relief upgrades, even in a division that the Nets figured to win in a walk if Krusty the Clown were their closer.
On Sunday, Nats fans got their wish. Washington nabbed right-hander Ryan Madson and left-hander Sean Doolittle in exchange for two B-level prospects (left-hander Jesus Lazardo and third baseman Sheldon Neuse), as well as one of the chief offenders in this year’s pen, Blake Treinen.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. Madson’s dealt with multiple major injuries during his career, so much so that he didn’t throw a single pitch in the majors between 2011 and 2015. He also turns 37 next month, and the $7.5 million the Nats will pay him next year might turn out to be a lousy investment if age, injury, or both trip him up. Doolittle hasn’t dealt with maladies quite that severe, but he’s still got a checkered track record when it comes to health. Injuries have limited him to just 13 ⅔ innings in 2015, 39 innings in 2016, and 21 ⅓ frames this year.
Now the good news. Madson’s thrived this year, striking out six and a half batters for every one walk he’s allowed, generating an impressive 55.8% groundball rate and flashing a tidy 2.06 ERA. Doolittle scoffs at that strikeout-to-walk rate, fanning 31 batters while issuing just two free passes. He’s faced 24 left-handed batters this year, recording 12 strikeouts, walking none ... and issuing zero hits. Doolittle’s contract is a beauty too: If the Nationals pick up their options on him in 2019 and 2020, he’ll cost a total of just $18 million for the rest of this season, plus the next three.
Given the tire fire that Washington’s incumbent relievers have produced, acquiring just about anyone with a pulse should be an upgrade to its dreadful bullpen. The Nats did a lot better than that here. Joe Ross’s season-ending injury, plus a potential need for even more relief help, could keep them busy for the next two weeks before the deadline. But for the first time this year, you can now close your eyes and imagine the Nationals actually closing out games successfully in October. It's about damn time.