Nationals Bullpen Review, Part 1: Who Is Worth Keeping?

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves
Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves / Brett Davis/GettyImages

It has been an eternal theme of the Washington Nationals franchise to have a disappointing bullpen. Any time the team has put together a strong, competitive roster, it has been undercut by difficulties holding leads in the late innings. The team has a reputation for weak relief arms, especially among us dedicated fans, and that has been mostly deserved. This year as we've watched the rebuilding Nats surprise in some areas, we've once again seen a 'pen prone to collapse.

There are several issues with the bullpen as currently composed. There is an obvious lack of investment into acquiring dominant late-inning arms, which fits with the team's competitive window. Without access to high-end or even mid-range free agents, the team must rely on young players from the farm, cheap free agents unwanted by contenders, and waiver acquisitions. Right now, the bullpen entirely consists of the latter two categories, with not a single draft pick or international signing from the Nationals represented. Four free agents, two waiver claims, a trade acquisition, and a Rule 5 Draft selection make up the current bullpen.

Regardless of the team's competitive state, it is frustrating to watch an inept bullpen. The team's relievers have combined for a putrid 4.92 ERA, lead MLB with 15 blown saves, and are third worst with 36 home runs allowed. As a unit, the relievers have failed to hold leads, have failed to keep games close, and have soured the efforts of solid starting pitchers several times over. It's been a disaster back there, something that we've become used to when the Nats 'pen is called upon.

You might think that, in the grand scheme of the team, this isn't that big of a deal. You would be right about that, in a way. In the past, Mike Rizzo and the Nats have solved this exact problem by simply trading for a good bullpen at midseason. That won't happen this year, of course, but should the Nationals really need some lockdown arms in the future it stands to reason that they'll actually try to get them. Our World Series victory was made possible by trade acquisitions Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, the kind of veterans that wouldn't be nearly as valuable to the current team.

The concerns with the current bullpen are different than the concerns of past bullpens. It's not so important that the team might blow a few saves this week, as annoying as that would be. Rather, the gradual forces of scouting and player development could be helping the club achieve future goals, but the Nationals are behind the ball. If you look at most other major league rosters, there are several potential future closers, live arms with riding fastballs, young bullpen projects with strikeout ability. On the Nationals, we have barely seen any such pitchers over two years.

The team is wasting time and space on subpar relievers. Space on the 40-man roster and valuable MLB playing time has been allocated to players like Erasmo Ramirez for the past season-plus. Similar veterans have been prioritized over younger arms, which is both an issue with the organizational philosophy on veterans and the ability of the team to generate value at the lower levels that would be worth a big-league shot. Erasmo Ramirez was never going to return any huge assets at the trade deadline, but we rolled him out anyways.

Who Should Be Getting Innings Out Of The Nationals Bullpen?

Now that Ramirez has been released, and demotions have been served to Anthony Banda, Andres Machado, and Hobie Harris, there is space to fill. Those players are all low-ceiling filler, and their time on the mound is now down the drain, never to be converted into trade assets or future performance. That's what this league is about: maximizing value wherever possible, collecting lottery tickets and making sure nobody else gets their hands on what could be your big prize.

The first three relievers are easy. Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, and Carl Edwards Jr. have been rolled out in the late innings as setup men and closers and all hover around the average for 7th- or 8th-inning guys on contending teams. Harvey might be a bit better than that when healthy, and also might be the one most likely to stick around past this year. All are trade candidates and are certainly worth regular playing time to prove their value to potential buyers. As a side effect of their tryouts to get traded, they make up the only reliable relievers on the team, and the only path to success for the team is to get them all to contribute. Should even one of them be traded, the situation would look even more dire.

Mason Thompson is something of an anomaly in the Nationals organization, in that he is young and has legitimate potential. We saw a thunderous beginning to the season for the young righty followed by a huge drop-off. Now he looks solid again, and the 25-year-old is certainly a keeper for the team going forward. He has the talent to succeed at a high level, making him stand out in an organization without many similar players. Inconsistency or not, the team needs more players like Mason Thompson, and he is worth the time and effort; he might become an even better reliever.

Past this point there is not much positive to say. The team has filled in the spots of Banda, Harris, and Ramirez with a similarly uninspiring group of players. Chad Kuhl headlines the group of misfits, the man with a whopping $3 million contract and about nothing else going for him. He's been truly awful, even after dropping from rotation member to 5th-choice relief pitcher. Gazing at Kuhl's numbers and his recent game log feels like doing an autopsy on his season, because surely he should have run out of slack by now. He persists, somehow, but after giving up another home run in the series opener in Houston he might not last much longer. The potential value of his contract, which would be pretty meager even in the best possible scenario, is irrecoverable now. It's time to move on from Chad Kuhl.

Jordan Weems is hardly any different from Hobie Harris. He has never been good in the majors and isn't likely to become elite at age 30. The thought of trying out guys like Weems, Harris, or Thaddeus Ward is fine, but the team has an awful track record in this field. Thaddeus Ward has a bit more potential but has struggled through 20+ innings in a way that does not inspire any confidence in his future performance. It would be great if any of these players started actually pitching well but it simply hasn't happened, and they aren't young enough to expect major changes.

Cory Abbott, the final member of the bullpen, represents a poor group of optionable minor leaguers who might fill in for the aforementioned DFA candidates. There isn't anything special about Abbott, who is almost 28 and performed poorly at AAA. When he was recalled to replace Erasmo Ramirez, it was clear that there is no real plan that the front office has for the bullpen. A few players have already flunked out, and everything now looks completely barren. Abbott is a lock to perform below replacement level, so his time spent on the 40-man roster is only a detriment to the team.

In the 2nd part of this review, I will examine the rest of the 40-man roster and several other minor leaguers to look at who could and should be making bullpen appearances for the big league club. There's many things about the current and future Nationals to be excited about, but the bullpen has not been one of them. Change is needed, and any new names would be more exciting than more of the same.