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Washington Nationals

Nationals bullpen taxes starters and illustrates annual problems

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 20: Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker (12) makes a pitching change during a game between the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals on April 20, 2017 at SunTrust Park in Atlanta, GA. The Washington Nationals beat the Atlanta Braves 3 Ð 2. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)

The recent revelation that the Washington Nationals’ bullpen problems could have been avoided had two offseason deals that general manager Mike Rizzo had in place for David Robertson and Greg Holland not been undone by the owners, the Lerner family, does not come as a shock in the context of their history. This has happened before with the Nationals in the past and is a widespread and bewildering issue that has prevented them from maximizing their laudable talent.

As has been the case multiple times in what could be called the Bryce Harper-Stephen Strasburg era, the Nationals lead the National League East by double-digit games. But they have either gotten bounced in the first round in the seasons in which they made the playoffs or have badly underachieved and devolved into a dysfunctional mess in the seasons they haven’t.

That foundation of talent with not just Harper and Strasburg, but Max Scherzer, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy and more make this a team to beat, destined to contend provided they’re managed relatively well and they remain moderately healthy. But they fail to take that final, necessary step to fully commit to trying to win once and for all by filling every hole and letting their baseball people – led by the talent-savvy Rizzo – have the free rein to do what must be done without groveling to ownership and wondering what the answer will be.

In contrast to the classic caricatures of meddling owners George Steinbrenner, Charlie Finley, Jeffrey Loria and C. Montgomery Burns, the Lerners do not overtly meddle by screaming at underlings, making arbitrary changes and then reversing them, calling the dugout and demanding lineup adjustments. But in a way, what they do is worse. After years of the same stories emanating from the nation’s capital as to the constraints under which Rizzo is working, it’s clear that he makes his recommendations never knowing which ones will be approved and which ones will be denied. That is a difficult way to function regardless of competence.

The idea that the non-owner, all-powerful baseball operations boss has “final say” is silly. No operations boss in any sport wields that kind of power to do whatever he or she wants independent of ownership approval. Not Billy Beane, not Bill Belichick, not Gregg Popovich – no one. Obviously, those who have had a level of success will have as close to an automatic approval as possible, but this illustrates the reality that is often unrealized as to the limits of their power.

Rizzo might not be on a level with Belichick or Popovich; he doesn’t have the public image as a “genius” of Beane, but he certainly knows what he’s doing to a degree that he should not have to negotiate with other clubs while wondering if all his hard work will go for naught because of a thumbs-down from ownership.

It’s not simply that the failure to secure Robertson, Holland, Mark Melancon, Kenley Jansen, Wade Davis or any other proven closer has left the Nationals’ bullpen in flux, but the entire bullpen has been compromised by the frequent shuffling. They began the season with Blake Treinen closing. He didn’t get the job done and there has been a revolving door with Koda Glover, Shawn Kelley, Matt Albers, Enny Romero and Oliver Perez all recording saves. Even when they opened the checkbook to bolster the bullpen by signing Joe Blanton to a one-year, $4 million contract late in the winter, they have not gotten their money’s worth as Blanton has gotten pounded to the tune of an ERA of 9.19. This, in turn, has forced manager Dusty Baker to revert to what was the biggest criticism he faced in his managerial career before getting to Washington and, in large part, prevented him from getting other jobs despite his history of success everywhere he has managed: He’s pushing his starting pitchers hard.

In 2017, Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark are all in the top 25 in Major League Baseball in innings pitched. Worse, all four are in the top 10 in pitches thrown. Would this be the case were the bullpen not such a mess? Had the Nationals acquired a legitimate closer who was doing his job, would they be in a position to have defined roles for their relievers and use them in situations that better suited them rather than scrambling on a nightly basis?

Washington Nationals' Stephen Strasburg (37) delivers a pitch during the first inning of a baseball game against the New York Mets Saturday, June 17, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

These pitchers have always thrown a lot of pitches. Scherzer, for example, goes deep into games and strikes out a lot of hitters. This will automatically create high pitch counts and innings accumulations. This season, however, is different for Scherzer and his fellow starters. Before it was circumstantial and by choice; now it’s by necessity. The Nationals have no alternative but to push their starters because the bullpen has been so terrible.

From his time managing the Chicago Cubs from 2003 through 2006, Baker was unfairly criticized for the injury-related spirals of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood from overuse. But with the Cubs, Baker had a mandate: Win. Back then, no one was counting pitches or demanding managers take pitchers out at “random pitch number X.” The need to win superseded babying those young arms. Did it damage their careers or would they have gotten hurt anyway? It’s a question no one can answer with any level of accuracy. It is also conveniently forgotten that Baker came the closest since 1945 to breaking the Cubs “curse” than anyone before its actual destruction by Theo Epstein & Co. in 2016.

Baker had adapted in the intervening years and the criticism died down, especially in 2016. Now, though, the Nationals had a choice: Push the starters or continue to use relievers in whom they justifiably had little trust and blow games they would otherwise win. Baker has chosen the latter. Is that partly because the Nationals are a veteran team with a “win already” mandate? It it because the team is guaranteed to have Harper through 2018 and has a core that is starting to age even with its powerful offensive performance? Is it because he’s in the last year of his contract and he’s running out of chances to win the World Series title that has eluded him during his two-decade managerial career? Is it a combination?

By any measure, Baker having to publicly shrug about wanting a contract extension and it being known that no such talks have been initiated is another distraction that the club does not need any more than it needed the revelation that the owners rejected deals for two closers who have been excellent in 2017.

Baker’s position is thoroughly understandable on two fronts. One, he walked into a fractured Nationals clubhouse and, with essentially the same roster that had come to near mutiny under former manager Matt Williams and was the quintessential “25 players/25 cabs” non-functioning unit, turned it into a 95-win division champion. Two, he knows that the number of clubs willing to hire a manager of his ilk – 68 years old and old-school, with enough cachet to resist front-office entreaties on tactics – is small, to the point that he might not get another managing job. This might be his last chance to win that elusive World Series as a manager and, with his managerial resume, perhaps gain entry to Cooperstown.

He was not hired for strategic wizardry; he was hired to do what Williams couldn’t: Get the veterans on the same page and control the clubhouse. Baker has done that.

With their division lead, the Nationals can ease off on their starters for the greater good. But that could result in blown games they otherwise could have won, reduce their lead, pressure them to fill that hole with greater urgency, leave them vulnerable to other teams’ demands as the Nationals scour the market, and do all this as Rizzo will still need to figuratively (or maybe literally – who knows?) crawl like a supplicant into the owner’s office to beg for the go-ahead to complete the trade.

The National League, and baseball in general, is wide-open in 2017, moreso than in any of the Harper-Strasburg years; the Nationals are not getting any younger; their starting pitchers are healthy, but the wear is accruing; Baker’s contract is expiring at season’s end; Harper could leave after 2018 – all the pieces are in place for them to go for it and go for it now. If they had pulled the trigger on a closer in the offseason as they should have, they could have avoided these questions that crop up about them seemingly on an annual basis, but they didn’t.

And here they are. Again.

*****

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