Nationals Bullpen Review, Part 2: Who Should Get The Call?

San Diego Padres v Washington Nationals
San Diego Padres v Washington Nationals / Scott Taetsch/GettyImages

In part one of reviewing the Nationals bullpen so far, I went over the unit's performance. In short, it's been awful, with numbers at the bottom of the league in every facet. Those struggles have led to several roster moves but no answers have been found. When Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, and Carl Edwards Jr. are available, the Nats are perfectly fine, but everything past that has been a disaster.

This piece will look at the players who are in line for opportunities out of the Nationals bullpen this year and in the years to come. There is no urgent need for elite, lockdown type relievers, but any amount of value generated can help improve future competitive rosters. Right now, players like Chad Kuhl and Jordan Weems are simply taking up space until the team can identify some players with upside and team control. There is one important question that needs to be asked of the front office.

Who Is The Future Nationals Closer?

Right now, all high-leverage innings are allocated to Finnegan, Harvey, and Edwards Jr. whenever possible. Their value in a setup or closing role is evident, and will be coveted by contending teams at midseason. Finnegan and Harvey have multiple years of control remaining, which only increases their trade value. If they aren't traded at the deadline this year, they are likely to be shopped around in the offseason and at next season's trade deadline. None of them are likely to form the backbone of the next competitive Nationals bullpen.

Mason Thompson is the only player in the Majors right now that could answer this question, then. Cory Abbott and Thaddeus Ward have team control but profile more as multi-inning swingman types. In the modern MLB, bullpens are constantly in flux and experience rapid year-to-year turnover. It's likely that all of these names will be gone within a year or two, for one reason or another. Thompson has the potential to stick around, and his arbitration years extend through the 2027 season.

Predicting minor leaguers to become high-leverage relievers is a fool's errand. There is so much volatility for relievers, with smaller sample sizes, injuries, and scarce pitch data. There is some information we can use, however, to determine which players have the best shot at making an impact in the majors. Here are three players who stand out within the minor league ranks.

Zach Brzycky

This one is easy, because I've already wrote about Brzycky before, predicting that he would get called up at some point in 2023. In summary of that breakdown, Brzycky (pronounced BRICK-see) has a great fastball with movement, and has struck out a ton of batters in the minor leagues. He is currently injured and has yet to pitch in 2023, but at age 24 he could be ready to move quickly to the majors once he is back to pitching. According to FanGraphs' Eric Longenhagen, he has problems with control but his stuff is easily big-league quality. That's the kind of player who deserves an opportunity, and who could become a difference maker in the bullpen.

There aren't many players in the Nationals system with stuff like Brzycky's. The bar is set very high for pitchers in the big leagues, and it's difficult to find pitchers with good enough stuff and good enough command to survive against the best lineups in the league. Brzycky has potential, but is also notably alone in this system. On the 20-80 scale, he is graded as a 40 FV prospect by FanGraphs, the only player projected to be a single-inning relief pitcher with a 40 FV or better.

Amos Willingham

Amos Willingham is another righty reliever who is nearing his big-league debut. He was a 17th round draft pick in 2019, and has climbed from Low-A in 2019 to AAA this season. He's one of the better performers in the Nationals minor leagues at the moment, and his age and proximity make him a likely future big leaguer. It would be a longshot to label him a future closer, but he's got the requisite fastball talent, and that is hard to find. He ranks 25th on FanGraphs' list, as a 35+ FV prospect, and it is noted that he needs to improve his slider command.

Willingham and Brzycky are the two players who should be making their way to the Nationals bullpen sooner rather than later. While low-upside veterans are struggling and the current high-leverage core could be traded any minute, they should find opportunity. There's a strong possibility they will flounder against big leaguers, but they're the two players with the best shot right now to become something of value. Just for fun, here's one more name for the future.

Jarlin Susana

Susana is the type of player that gets labeled "future closer" in the minor leagues. Watch him throw one pitch, and you'll understand why. Susana has gargantuan arm strength, and has been blazing 100+ MPH pitches as a teenager. It's clear why Susana was a target for the Nationals in the Juan Soto trade, his inclusion being a high-risk flier behind multiple more mature prospects and big leaguers.

There are a ton of caveats necessary to give Susana any hype. He's just a teenager, and he's hardly thrown any professional innings. Also, he's currently a starting pitcher and the organization will give him every opportunity to develop enough command and additional pitches to be able to start. It's a good sign that he's already made nine starts at Single-A Fredericksburg. Susana needs several more years before he's ready for the big leagues, and we can't yet know exactly what he'll look like at that point. There have been many, many players with eye-popping talent that never make it. His arm is clearly special, and he deserves a mention as a potential impact pitcher, and could maybe even be the future closer for the Nationals.

These three players all have enough talent to be in the big leauges, and all have been scouted as having plus fastballs. That's good for them, but they make up an incredibly thin layer of depth for the future of Nationals bullpens. A team that sustains a competitive window needs a few dozen solid relievers to churn through. They can be acquired by trade and in free agency but depth is always, always needed. It's impossible to say who will actually be the one getting the saves in future seasons, but anybody that can produce closer-like results at the highest level carries huge value.

In the aforementioned article at FanGraphs, Eric Longenhagen mentioned a group of players that he simply labeled: "stalled out". These are Nationals pitching prospects, mostly starters, who have notable enough talent but do not look to be on track to develop into notable major leaguers. Browsing their respective minor league statistics shows a series of disappointments from these players, some who were drafted in the early rounds and some who were acquired in one of several fire sales in recent years. This group consists of Tommy Romero, Matt Cronin, Joel Peguero, Andy Lara, Evan Lee, Mason Denaburg, and Geraldo Carrillo.

Romero and Lee have already made their debuts, and might be called upon again some time. Cronin, Peguero, and Carrillo are also in the bullpen at the high minors and could fill in if extra 40-man roster spots open up. It's hard to get excited about any of them, though. One or more of them will likely be in the big leagues in the next few years but you have to squint to see anything more than replacement level performance in their futures.

These are the kinds of players that every organization has floating around. Starters moving to the bullpen because of injury or command problems, slow-developing draft disappointments and failed trade acquisitions. The best organizations will take this pile, teach them new pitches and new strategies, sifting for specks of gold. Every year, they manage to summon forth one of those lights-out relievers that appear from time to time. There's hardly been any such pitchers for the Nats, though. The only thing to be done is to keep trying, and call up Amos Willingham, or anybody, really.