Why is the Nationals bullpen so bad?

At the dawn of the 2014 season, the Nationals made their last, best offer to re-sign shortstop cornerstone Ian Desmond.  He turned it down.  After that season–with only one year to go on Ian Desmond’s contract–Mike Rizzo went out and traded one of his best assets for a young shortstop named Trea Turner.  It’s worked out quite well, and Turner is likely to man the shortstop position for the Nats well into the next decade.

It’s an example of foresight and planning.  General Managers aren’t just responsible for the current team–they’re responsible for next year’s team too.  And the one after that.  GM’s who neglect the future will eventually be fired, and they should be.  The Nationals had a gaping hole at shortstop after Desmond let the team know he wanted to go to free agency.  Mike Rizzo went out and fixed it.  It wasn’t an accident; it was a conscious choice to build for the future.  It’s a good illustration how the Nationals have been able to maintain their contending status years after experts thought their “window” would close.

This track record of success only makes the 2017 bullpen that much more puzzling.  The foresight demonstrated in other areas simply hasn’t translated to bullpen construction.  This year’s bullpen is a Frankenstein’s Monster of futility.  It’s a collaboration of raw prospects (Koda Glover, Enny Romero), journeymen castoffs (Ollie Perez, Matt Albers), and guys who just haven’t developed (Blake Treinen).  It’s a crew you’d expect a rebuilding team to throw together, not a defending division champion expecting another playoff appearance.

Great bullpens aren’t build in a day, and they’re usually not built in one offseason.  Like the rest of the roster, it takes years to come together.  You know, foresight.  Planning.  This offseason, 2016 closer Mark Melancon signed with San Francisco after the Nats were outbid.  Letting him go was probably the right move.  Melancon is on the wrong side of 30 and the Giants gave him a ton of money (Melancon, by the way, is already on the DL).  The Nats also tried to bring in Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen.  He eventually re-signed with LA for a truckload of money.  Each of those failed attempts to fix the bullpen seems logical.  You don’t want to break your payroll with an age 30+ closer.

The question, though, isn’t whether they should have signed one of those guys, it’s why this team is in the position where one or two lost bidding wars puts the bullpen on a path to failure?  This isn’t a matter of the Lerners not spending enough on the bullpen.  It’s more complicated than that.  This bullpen is the result of a series of miscalculations, mistakes, and misplaced priorities over time.

Adam Eaton is a great player and his trade will continue to benefit the Nationals well into the future.  But he didn’t come cheap; the Nationals gave up some of their best minor league assets to acquire him.  This was a choice.  They could have devoted those prospects to get bullpen help.  Andrew Miller–quite possibly the best relief pitcher alive right now–could have been traded for last season at that price.  Instead the Nats targeted Melancon at a cheaper price–and he is now gone.  Last offseason, the Nats traded Drew Storen, a relief pitcher himself.  I was ok with this–Storen and his bad attitude needed to go–but there was no corresponding move to replace him.  The closest thing was sending Yunel Escobar to LA for reliever Trevor Gott, who is currently somewhere in minor league purgatory.  Perhaps the Nats felt they didn’t need to replace Storen because they had Jonathan Papelbon.  Papelbon, acquired in lieu of other more effective closers in 2015 because he was cheaper, wore down last year, causing the Nats to chase Melancon in the first place, giving up a young reliever Felipe Rivero who is pitching very, very well in the Pirates bullpen right now.

There’s no one decision that led to this debacle.  The above track record is only the tip of the iceberg–unmentioned are the dozens of lower and mid-level transactions where serviceable relievers possibly slip through the Nats fingers.  Every signing or trade the Nats make for a position player is another missed opportunity to address the relief pitching.  It’s a matter of priorities.

This leads to the biggest problem.  The Nats system simply isn’t producing the relievers needed to staff a bullpen.  A pitching staff isn’t built through free agency; the bulk of the players come from down below.  A few weeks ago, I wrote how the team needs to change the way they think about pitchers and their development.  In it, I suggested then-AAA starter Jacob Turner could be an option in the bullpen.  The other night he pitched 4 innings of scoreless relief.  Whether he becomes a valuable reliever this season is unknown, but it’s a step in the right direction.  My recommendation still holds: the Nats need to be more creative.  They also need to take bullpen construction more seriously because their current ad-hoc approach isn’t working.

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One way to fix replay: eject managers for lost challenges

It’s not a secret that I hate replay.  I am by no means a baseball traditionalist entirely opposed to change.  I simply think the existence of replay makes the game worse by adding delay while providing little tangible benefit.  Replay exist to “get the calls right,” but more often than not, managers challenge calls they know to be right or plays that are too close to know for sure.  There’s no downside to a lost challenge, and huge upside to a won challenge.

It’s all infuriating to watch.  Managers often challenge calls in the 7th, 8th, or 9th inning because they have a challenge left to burn.  A call the manager would ordinarily let stand in the 1st inning suddenly becomes something worth sending to the replay booth in New York because the game is almost over.  Fans have to sit there and watch umpires stand around wearing headsets at the point in the game where it already begins to drag due to frequent pitching changes.  Late-game “Hail Mary” replays also illustrate the biggest paradox of the system.  It exits to ensure an obviously wrong call doesn’t stand (think Armando Galarraga’s non-perfect game).  Yet, the close call that could go either way–thus a play less worthy of a challenge–take the longest to review as replay officials parse every possible camera angle.

Aside from acting as a safety net to prevent a Galarraga perfect game mishap, replay has achieved one other positive result.  Managers rarely argue with umpires anymore since they now have a more productive outlet for their disagreements.  Some traditionalists may lament this, but I don’t.  It, too, was a waste of time, since managers hardly ever succeeded in changing the umpire’s mind.  Managers argued for catharsis or to “fire their team up.”  Earl Weaver made arguing with umpires part of his brand, and his ejection record reflected that.

Since replay started to poison Major League Baseball, I’ve brainstormed ways to discourage unnecessary challenges.  Recently, MLB imposed a 30-second time limit for managers to challenge.  This doesn’t solve the problem; in fact it might make the problem worse since managers now have less time to know whether their challenge is a worthwhile one.  Here’s my solution.  If a manager loses a challenge, he’s ejected from the game.  If you waste our time with a pointless challenge, go to the showers.  This might sound harsh, or even unfair since replay often returns unexpected results.  But that is entirely the point.  Replay is there to fix obvious mistakes.  It’s not a late-game dice roll when things aren’t going your way.  I’m more convinced now more than ever MLB needs to dis-incentivize a bad replay challenge.  Publicly humiliating a manager who wastes our time is a good start.