Washington Nationals: A potential new plan for the team’s bullpen usage

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 29: Sean Doolittle #62 of the Washington Nationals walks off the field after being relieved after loading the bases in the ninth inning of a game against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on September 29, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 29: Sean Doolittle #62 of the Washington Nationals walks off the field after being relieved after loading the bases in the ninth inning of a game against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on September 29, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images) /

The Washington Nationals bullpen has been the organization’s Achilles heel for several years now. But we came up with a possible plan to change that in 2019

No Washington Nationals fan needs reminding of some of the team’s infamous bullpen meltdowns in big spots over the last decade. While this year’s bullpen is nothing to write home about, using them in the correct manner could help them outperform the sum of their parts.

The main changes from this time last year are the acquisitions of Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough to replace Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler. The Nats have also been able to get Koda Glover back fully healthy, Wander Suero stepped up from Triple-A and unearthed a possible gem in Justin Miller.

Even though the potential talent is there, the bullpen still has some question marks hanging over it, especially in the late innings. The one near-certainty in the bullpen is closer Sean Doolittle, who has been one of the best relievers in the game since he came over from the Oakland Athletics.

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Any plan involving the bullpen usage must start and end with Doolittle, as he has to be in as many high-leverage spots as possible to get the team to win games. And yes, that may mean not using him in the ninth inning.

It’s been a trend that some are still trying to get their heads around, but it’s one that makes a lot of sense, and could make even more sense for the Nationals. The exaggerated example is that if the heart of the order comes in the eighth and the 6-8 hitters are due in the ninth, surely you’d rather your best reliever come in during the eighth inning.

We saw the Cleveland Indians use this philosophy to full effect back in 2016 on their way to playing the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. Though Cody Allen assumed the closer’s role, Andrew Miller was the real star of the bullpen throughout the miraculous run.

The lefty was flat-out dominant with the Indians, with a 1.55 ERA in the regular season after he was traded, followed by 1.40 ERA in the playoffs with a combined ludicrous 14.05 K/9. He was also used over multiple innings to maximize his effectiveness, with 18 of his 36 appearances with the Indians, including the postseason, were over multiple innings.

That’s where Sean Doolittle comes in, as he could certainly fill the role of Miller as the dominant pitcher in the bullpen. Though the Nats lefty didn’t do it frequently last season, he has excelled over multiple innings when required, particularly early on in his career with the A’s.

Now, maybe you don’t throw Doolittle into the multi-inning appearances straight away to preserve his arm for the postseason, but it’s something to keep in mind as the season goes on. But then, with him pitching whichever inning appears to be the highest leverage, the question remains around who would then play the role of Cody Allen if Doolittle has already pitched.

Now, one option is Trevor Rosenthal, who has closing experience, and the team will also be looking to limit his innings this year in his first year back off surgery. He has a career 2.99 ERA, 2.60 FIP and strikes out batters at an elite clip with a 12.0 K/9. So that could be a perfect fit, theoretically at least.

However, it’s not something the team would be able to thrust him into straight away, as the team will still need to see how he fares after the surgery first. Also, Rosenthal’s $14 million team option will automatically vest if the right-hander pitches in 50 games, or finishes 30 games. So if they’re prepared to thrust him into the ninth inning, they need to be sure he’s going to be worth that $14 million the following season, which could be a top five reliever salary.

The other potential option for the Allen role is someone not with the organization yet, Craig Kimbrel. Rumors continue to swirl around a union between the Nats and Kimbrel, which could be a good fit if they can come to an agreement.

He has essentially been the best closer in baseball since his rookie year back in 2011, but we saw him fade a little down the stretch as the Boston Red Sox squeezed every inning possible out of him. So similarly to Rosenthal, keeping him for one inning duty while Doolittle works multiple innings could benefit both.

The only issue with Kimbrel is the potential cost. He should earn at least $15 million per season in free agency and should get at least four years on his next deal. If the Nationals want to stay under the luxury tax threshold, assuming Bryce Harper departs, then it could be tricky to fit Kimbrel in. The team is roughly $11 million under the threshold as things stand, but they require breathing room to account for player incentives and possible midseason trades, so would likely need to clear about $10 million in payroll to fit Kimbrel in.

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The Washington Nationals have a big challenge on their hands as they once again set out to turn around their bullpen’s luck. This new strategy could help them maximize what they have with their current crop of relievers, hopefully, setting them up for a deep postseason run.