With the playoffs looming, the Washington Nationals have several roster decisions to make. While it’s not essential, they must decide if they want a long reliever.
The Washington Nationals have made it through the 2017 season without a bonafide long reliever in their bullpen, and they have still managed to be one of the best teams in the league. However, most teams carry a long reliever, and it certainly works.
Matt Grace has served as the Nats’ long reliever this season, but his arm is not stretched out enough to effectively fill the role. He has exceeded all expectations and pitched well in a spot start in San Diego, but has struggled when overused. This is not a risk the Nats can take in October.
With Joe Ross and Erick Fedde both out for the season, the Nats’ long reliever options other than Grace are likely A.J. Cole and Edwin Jackson. While Jackson pitched well to begin his current stint with the Nats, he has recently struggled mightily, pitching to a 12.38 ERA in September.
Jackson is a long-shot, at best, to make the postseason roster, so that only leaves Cole if the Nats want a bonafide long reliever.
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Most Nats fans would cringe at the thought of Cole on the postseason roster, but he has pitched much better recently. In five September appearances (three starts), he has pitched to a 3.54 ERA and appears to finally be settling in in the major leagues.
Some of his September success has even come against the Los Angeles Dodgers, a possible postseason opponent. The Nats won’t play against the Dodgers in the first round, but beating the Dodgers is on everyone’s mind. Cole’s success against them should do nothing but help his case to make the postseason roster.
Cole has not been dominant by any stretch, but he has pitched well enough to at least earn consideration for a spot on the postseason roster. He has also pitched out of the bullpen a couple times, so he has experience as a reliever.
Starters have had success as relievers in the postseason in the past, and it has even worked for the Nats. In Game 4 of the 2012 National League Division Series, Davey Johnson called upon Jordan Zimmermann to pitch in relief, and he was electric. Since he did not have to conserve his energy to last a full start, he was able to throw all-out and dominate.
We saw something similar with Cole in his relief appearances this season. His fastball was consistently in the mid-90’s, as opposed to the typical low-90’s during his starts. He also has solid career stats as a reliever, as he owns a career 3.97 ERA out of the bullpen.
With a need for only four starters in the postseason, Cole could take that fifth spot and pitch out of the bullpen. As we saw in 2014, when Game 2 of the National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants went 18 innings, having a long reliever can be extremely beneficial.
The Nationals don’t necessarily have the luxury of having several long reliever candidates to choose from, but they have a capable option in A.J. Cole should they decide to carry one. If it were up to me, I think I would take Cole. A month ago, I wouldn’t have even considered him, but he has made a solid case for himself.
While this decision will likely be a difficult one for the Nats, having decisions to make is much better than not. There are more pressing decisions for the Nats to make, but this one will be an interesting one to keep an eye on.