The All-Star break is in the rear view mirror by over a week and the big concern of the Washington Nationals offseason – the bullpen and manager Matt Williams use of it is still The Big Concern. That, and as the Nats opponents’ batting practice music says “Everybody Hurts,” but this post will not examine the unfortunate injuries, maiming, deaths and possible resurrections of Messrs. Werth, Zimmerman, Rendon, Span and Strasburg.
We knew the bullpen would be a a problem. Rafael Soriano and beloved “7th inning guy” Tyler Clippard were gone. We miss Clipp, but even with the apparent fatal wrist injury suffered by Yunel Escobar (acquired in that trade) the other day, it seems to have worked out. Another bullpen depletion that came after I asked beat writers the questions below was Jerry Blevins, traded to Flushing for Matt den Dekker because despite playing in New Amsterdam, the Mets, exceeded their Dutch surname quota. How’d that work out for you, Amazins?
Craig Stammen’s tragic illness has at least a year of corpse reanimation recuperation as well. He’s been a big loss.
Thankfully, for Washingtonians, the Nats play in the NLeast and the patchwork lineup of 30 year old rookie Clint Robinson, Michael A. Taylor and the shortstop having the worst contract year since time immemorial, Ian Desmond, has not prevented them from having a 3 game lead as of Thursday morning. The rotation, not quite historic all season long (but in spurts), has been good enough to overcome all of these calamities (injuries, depleted bullpen, Matt Williams) as we approach August.
Prior to the season, I asked every Post baseball writer I could about situational bullpen usage, starting with the rookie from Yale:
Q: Relief roles
You mentioned earlier in the chat that the two pennant winners had relievers with locked-in roles. As a fan, I’d rather see a pitcher better suited for the matchup than “well, he’s our seventh inning guy.” How do players feel about it? Would they rather have the “seventh inning guy” more than the pitcher that matches up the best to the batter(s)?
A: Chelsea Janes
This is something the Nationals relievers have talked a bit about in camp already — and by they’ve talked about it, I mean we’ve asked them about it. Craig Stammen, who has come to the park for the past couple seasons without any idea of what inning — if any — he might pitch that day said he thinks it should be easier when you know what inning you’re going to pitch. I think most guys agree because they can develop a routine. One-batter lefties know they’re going to be called on short notice. Thornton, for example, said that while he didn’t know exactly when he would pitch, he could see situations coming that would call for the hard-throwing lefty. So he could prepare mentally for those. The locked-in roles help, to some extent.
But I can see how Nationals fans would be uncomfortable with the idea of locked-in roles, particularly in the playoffs. Some argue that was one of the main things that cost the Nationals the NLDS last season — sticking to the pattern of bullpen use they’d relied on all season instead of adapting to the heightened circumstances and maybe changing things to match the situation. Whether in Game 2 or Game 4, those things came up, and sticking to the season-long plan, to established roles, didn’t work in that case. That doesn’t mean it could never work, it just didn’t in that case. So maybe there’s an argument to be made that locked-in roles help during the regular season, but all bullpen bets are off in the playoffs when arms are tired and pressure mounts and one at-bat determines the fate of a season. Not to be dramatic on February 26, but that question could end up defining the Nationals season. If the starters do their job and the hitters do theirs, Washington should have leads late in games. They could have those leads late in games late in October. At that point, those leads probably won’t be substantial. They’ll have to protect them. If this team makes the deep playoff run people project it should, it could all come down to the bullpen, to who comes out of it and when.
…but there’s a long way to go before that. The Nationals are a week away from their first spring training game. More questions will arise, and James and I will be back to answer them some time soon. That’s it for now, but thanks so much for reading, and stay warm! I won’t tell you how chilly it is in Viera right now, and instead remind you that in 38 days, there will be baseball at Nationals Park.
Long answers that are not really comforting, but illuminating. It’s not all on Matty.
Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports
Q: relief roles
Are relief roles as ingrained in the players as much as the reigning NLMOY? Would it take an organizational and or cultural shift to get to situational bullpen usage instead of Clip is my seventh ining guy thinking?
A: Thomas Boswell
Matt Williams was talking last week about the possibility of using “match-ups” at times in the eighth inning this year.
I had two thoughts. 1) He’s flexible. 2. “Ut oh!” If you have multiple quarterbacks or closers, you “don’t really have any.” I expect Janssen will grab and keep the job. If he doesn’t, it’ll get interesting fast.
These responses suggest a few things– players seem to like knowing their role and perhaps long-tenured baseball columnists feel even stronger about it because despite impressive bona fides, they are looking at this like it’s football.
It seems that an organizational/cultural approach that would need to change to embrace that not all relief appearances are equal. A 9th-inning up by two facing the 6-8 hitters is very different than a 7th inning up 1 with a runner on and hitters 2-4 due up. The focus on saves as the primary metric for evaluating relievers has obscured that high leverage situations should result in the best available pitcher instead of the “X inning guy.”
So, in short, the Nats bullpen situation will not improve through strategy and it’s not entirely because Matt Williams (or Boswell!) is unimaginative and underwhelming in general. It’s just mostly his doing. This just amplifies the siren song from the Queen City (of Cincinnati -because lets face it, there are several Queen Cities in the U.S.) is being heard throughout the Natmosphere. Aroldis Chapman, throws about as fast as Jayson Werth drives and is being completely wasted on the lowly, but tots realz baseball towne Reds. There is lust in the hearts of curly W fans for this flamethrower that Mike Rizzo infamously claimed to come in second place for way back in Olden Times. I too, would like Chapman to ply his trade on South Capitol Street, but I don’t see how the Nats could make it happen. Actually, I do and I am not willing to part with wunderkind Trea “Ian who?” Turner. Michael A. Taylor even up though!
I don’t condemn coveting Chapman, but I take issue with my distinguished colleague that he would be the second greatest Cuban Nat ever. Obviously, the people’s champion and special assistant to life skills coach Rick Ankiel (what ever happened to that?) is ¡LIVAN! We love #61 like he loves second breakfast and I won’t take that away from anybody. However, there was once another Cuban junkthrower in this town:
Connie Marrero won 39 games over 4 years for DC back before color television, starting as a 39 year old rookie in the majors. He lived to be a few days short of 103 years old, taught LIVAN! the curve and wore an outstanding t-shirt along with his curly W cap. Then he died and about a year later, our sweet land of liberty and his homeland resumed diplomatic relation. Marrero, no relation to Chris, died and all of the sudden, we’re cool with Cuba again. His sacrifice made this happen, if only by his astute fashion sense.
So, despite what you have read elsewhere Chapman to the bullpen would be wonderful, is impossible and still only the third best Cuban connection in Washington baseball history. Don’t forget that, ever.
Now, it’s onto August and hopefully a Mets team that outright quits while the Nats wait to get healthy in the hope that maybe it’ll work out better in the fall.