Throughout the offseason, a lot has been made of the Washington Nationals and what they’ll do with the anchor of their bullpen. It’s really no surprise, considering that the closer position has generated more drama than almost any other position on the roster. Between Rafael Soriano, whose terrible 2014 led to his departure, and Drew Storen, there’s been enough debate to rival CSPAN.
Amidst all this hubbub, Tyler Clippard has somehow managed to fly under the radar. The goggles-wearing, hard-throwing setup man is, like Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann, entering the last year of his contract. But unlike those two players, whose names constantly come up in trade discussions, Clippard only garners the occasional mention.
So with Clippard getting ready to head into free agency after the 2015 season, what should the Nationals do? Is it better for them to let him play out the last year of his deal; trade him in hopes of picking up a handful of good prospects; or should they try to sign him to an extension?
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That question would seem to be a complex one, but one look at the Nationals’ history at closer should give you all the information you need to make the right choice: the Nationals should do everything they can to extend Clippard.
In this day and age, back-end relievers, even those who don’t pitch the ninth, are hot commodities. Clippard will not lack for suitors in free agency, which could drive up the price quickly. If the Nats don’t want to get into a bidding war, they’ll be hard pressed to find a replacement for Clippard.
A trade presents a similar sort of problem. The Nationals likely wouldn’t receive as much in a deal for Clippard as they would for guys like Zimmermann or Desmond, and he’s proven to be an integral part of the bullpen. Swapping Clippard for prospects could really hamper what has been one of the Nationals’ best assets, and it could start to stretch the depth of the bullpen.
Detwiler will be pitching in Arlington next year, and Heath Bell’s success is far from a guarantee. Maybe they can develop Aaron Barrett or another of their young arms into a set-up man. It’s definitely possible, but why risk that when you have the bona fide article already on your hands?
It’s also difficult to imagine the Nationals going the free agency route again. The Soriano deal unfolded into a nightmare over the second half of 2014. Surely Mike Rizzo wouldn’t subject himself – and the fan base – to that sort of fiasco again.
Another piece of this puzzle to consider is the current Nats closer, Drew Storen. As Pablo wrote earlier this week, Storen still has a lot to prove in 2015. Can he rebound from another blown save in the playoffs? Does he have the toughness to be a full-time closer, or is he simply a regular season phenomenon? The Nationals likely won’t know until October, and by then it may be too late for them to do anything to keep Clippard.
If Storen does struggle, having Clippard almost becomes a necessity. Clippard proved back in 2012 that he can handle the closer role, notching 32 saves in 37 opportunities while Storen recovered from surgery. Sure, those aren’t Hall of Fame numbers by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re serviceable and enough of a reason to keep Clippard around for a few more seasons.
In our NL rankings at District on Deck, it was shown that Clippard’s numbers stacked up favorably with even the best relievers in the league, including the closers. His WAR over the last two seasons of 1.9 may not have been as high as those who posted so many saves, but a lot of that was driven by his role in the eighth inning. Apart from that, Clippard’s numbers bear out the fact that he can hold his own in comparison to almost anyone out of the bullpen.
For fairness’ sake, it should also be noted that there are a couple of red flags on the Goggled One. He’s been susceptible to the long ball, in part, due to the fact that he induces a lot of fly balls. Playing in Nationals Park may help with that, but it’s still a worry.
There’s also Clippard’s terrifyingly low BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, over the last two seasons. History tells us that BABIP is the sort of stat that regresses to the mean, which means Clippard could be due for a crushing fall back to reality in 2015 or soon thereafter. It’s hard to see him continue to have as much good fortune in the future, and that could spell trouble.
Even with those caveats, though, the Nationals would be better off signing a deal with Clippard. He’s proven to be a valuable member of the team over the past few seasons, and he is the perfect insurance policy should Drew Storen revert to NLDS form. After all, the Nationals might not find someone as valuable in free agency, and the last thing they need is getting into a bidding war over their setup man.