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The Best Team in the National League Has a Massive Weak Link

Just over a month into the season, Washington is practically a shoo-in for the postseason. But unless they fix their bullpen, the Nationals could be looking at another early playoff exit.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

When it comes to the Washington Nationals, “problematic” is a relative term. The Nats are 22–12, with the best record and largest division lead (5.5 games) in the National League. The Bryce Harper of 2015 is back. Ryan Zimmerman is trying to make up for all the production he missed from 2014 to 2016 in six weeks. Center fielder Adam Eaton is done for the year, but even if they decide to buy a replacement this summer, the Nats haven’t missed him so far; the only position where they have below-league-average offensive production in 2017 is shortstop, currently manned by last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up, Trea Turner, who’s probably going to improve on his .302 OBP as the season goes on. Each of Washington’s top four starters has an ERA+ of 120 or better, while most of the vaunted starting rotation of the Mets, their biggest divisional rival, is either hurt or getting Ed Rooney–ed out of town. Even the Cubs are struggling to get out of neutral early this season, while the Dodgers sit behind the Rockies in the NL West, leaving Washington at the top of the National League playoff picture.

These rosy circumstances make what’s going on at the back of the Nationals bullpen much easier to deal with. They aren’t the Rangers, who sit in last place because a guy named Dyson self-destructed on a scale unseen since the end of Terminator 2.

But in a day and age when no reliever is completely trustworthy in October — remember that both Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman got torched in Game 7 of the World Series last year — contenders like to go into the playoffs with as many shutdown relievers as possible, and the Nationals might not have any.

In the past 18 months, the Nationals have cut ties with three Proven Closers: Drew Storen, Jonathan Papelbon, and Mark Melancon, all admittedly for good reasons. A couple of bad playoff performances made Storen’s continued custodianship of the ninth inning untenable in Washington; Papelbon laid hands on Harper; and Melancon, a free agent after the 2016 season, commanded a $62 million contract from the Giants. Melancon is really good, but it’s understandable to not want to commit huge resources to a guy who pitches 70 innings a year. Washington is also out lefty Felipe Rivero, who went to Pittsburgh last summer in the trade for Melancon and is bumping triple digits with his fastball, with only one earned run allowed in 19 innings so far.

The Nationals broke camp with 28-year-old Blake Treinen, a four-year veteran who posted a 2.28 ERA in 2016, closing games. Treinen’s first four appearances were all save opportunities: He blew only one, but allowed runs in two of the three he converted. He hasn’t recorded a save since April 7, and since April 18, his only appearance in the ninth inning came in a 23–5 win, Washington’s biggest victory since Yorktown.

Next up: Shawn Kelley, who, over 2015 and 2016, posted a 2.55 ERA and 11.8 K/9 ratio. From April 14 to April 21, Kelley pitched five times and recorded either a win or a save each time out. That week, Nationals manager Dusty Baker announced that Kelley and rookie Koda Glover would share the closer’s role. Kelley, a 33-year-old with a twice-repaired UCL, has pitched only twice since and is on the 10-day DL with a lower-back strain. Glover, a hard-throwing 24-year-old out of Oklahoma State, picked up two saves in quick succession and went on the DL himself with a hip impingement.

Since then, things have gotten a little hairy. Joe Blanton, he of the 2.65 ERA in 2015 and 2016, fell into the Nationals’ laps on a one-year deal this offseason, but his ERA currently sits north of 9. Jacob Turner has been called on three times in May for Chris Devenski–like multi-inning appearances, most notably on May 3, when he entered a 1–1 game in the top of the sixth and took it the distance for a 2–1 win. A former top-10 pick who once headlined a trade for Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante (back when they were both good), Turner broke into the majors with the Tigers in 2011 at age 20, an early debut that only led to an early washout, thanks to shoulder injuries and three different campaigns that ended with his ERA over 6. It all happened quickly enough that Turner is now enjoying a late-career renaissance at age 25.

The most recent National to pick up a save is veteran right-hander Matt Albers. Until last week, the 34-year-old was most famous for never having saved a game in his career, despite finishing 102 of them. Only Ryan Webb has more career games finished (105) and no saves; nobody else has more than 63, and only 81 players since 1901 have 30 games finished without a save. And yet here comes Albers, a goofy-looking 12-year veteran with a career 99 ERA+, closing games for the team with the best record in the National League.

As of Thursday morning, the Nationals are the only team in a playoff position whose bullpen has a negative WPA. Albers might be their most (only?) trustworthy reliever right now. The rotation will paper over some of those cracks, but last year’s Dodgers had a good rotation and Kenley Jansen, and one trustworthy reliever wasn’t enough to win a title.

So what’s to be done?

Well, some of this is going to get better on its own. Glover and Kelley will both be back soon, and Treinen and Blanton simply can’t be this bad all season. You might not want them closing games against the Cubs in the NLCS, but they won’t give up an earned run an inning all season. Even if none of those guys improve, Washington’s 5.5-game lead and the overpowering cloud of black smoke emanating from Queens will buy them time to figure this out. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that there isn’t a ready-made in-house solution. Glover was the Nationals’ high-minors future closer and has already been up and tried the ninth inning on for size. He’s a known quantity and an integral part of the bullpen already, not an outside savior. Past him, they’re a little short on impact minor league arms: Joe Nathan, 42 years old and with a 7.04 ERA, is currently leading the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs in saves.

So they might be inclined to look outside the organization. Washington could draft a college pitcher and rush him to the bigs this year, like the Royals did with Brandon Finnegan in 2014, but that plan has a few sticking points: First, that’s a lot of pressure to put on a first-year pro. Second, there aren’t too many college relievers polished enough to make that leap right away. Third, picking a college reliever in the first round is dicey: Washington has done it twice in the past decade, both times in years when they’ve had multiple first-round picks. One of those relievers was Storen, who the Nats took with a compensation pick after they had already nabbed Stephen Strasburg no. 1 overall. The other, Dane Dunning, pitched out of the bullpen for Florida only because the Gators’ staff boasted three other pitchers who went in the top 90 picks last year, another who’ll go in the top 15 in 2017, and a freshman who turned down a second-round offer from the Blue Jays to go to college. At almost any other school in the country, Dunning would’ve been a starter.

For those of you asking why Dunning can’t close, he went to Chicago in the Eaton trade. That trade, which cost Washington two other pitchers — Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo López — with big stuff and big league experience, is part of the reason the Nationals aren’t in a position to go out and pluck an elite closer from a noncontender in a trade. Four Nationals made Baseball America’s revised top-100 list, the best of whom, outfielder Victor Robles, isn’t the kind of prospect you toss away for a reliever.

Even if another Miller- or Chapman-type trade were on the table, Washington needs more than one reliever, and they have the prospects to make only one of those trades. Any blockbuster deal would have to fill other needs. That’s why free-agent-to-be Lorenzo Cain keeps getting tagged onto persistent Kelvin Herrera–to-Washington rumors. While there’s no real rumor connecting Cain to the Nats yet, (1) that doesn’t mean one won’t develop in the eight weeks between now and the deadline, and (2) Washington was looking to pick up White Sox closer David Robertson in the Eaton trade this offseason, so the idea of a closer–center fielder package has clearly occurred to GM Mike Rizzo before.

The Nationals could also bypass the top tier of relievers and try to find their closer more cheaply. The nice thing about living in an age when relievers with 30 percent strikeout rates grow on trees is that it’s a buyer’s market. Plenty of teams that don’t expect to contend this year now find themselves with at least one overperforming reliever nobody completely trusts yet. If Rizzo’s scouts find one they like, Washington could bet on … [throws dart at K% leaderboardAnthony Swarzak of the White Sox or someone like him.

Even then, there are options that wouldn’t require as many prospects. This past offseason, the Phillies picked up Pat Neshek from the Astros for “a player to be named later or cash” — a straight-up salary dump. Neshek pitched for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic and hasn’t allowed a run this year. If the Nationals aren’t interested in a salary dump, they could audition waiver-wire guys with fastball velocity or an interesting secondary pitch; it’s impossible to know who’ll be there in a month or two, but that’s how Houston picked up Will Harris, who made the All-Star team last year. If there’s a positive about having a bullpen with the fourth-worst ERA– in baseball, it’s that it doesn’t take much to improve, and rather than taking one big shot at a star reliever, the Nationals could make multiple deals for lesser-known or less-certain pitchers.

With a huge division lead already, almost two months until the deadline, and only one other hole (center field) to worry about, the Nationals can afford to audition a lot of bad relievers before they land on the bullpen that they think can take them past the first round for the first time since the team relocated from Montreal.

The Nationals have plenty of options, but they do need to find one, because they’ve lost a playoff series by running out of relievers before, and they know how little fun that can be.

All statistics through Thursday afternoon.