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Washington Nationals

Have the Nationals solved their bullpen issues?

Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle pitches during the second game of a split double header baseball game between the Colorado Rockies and Washington Nationals, Sunday, July 30, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Tenally)
(AP Photo/Mark Tenally)

Largely due to name recognition, the buzzer-beating boldness of the Los Angeles Dodgers in getting Yu Darvish and Tony Watson and the Chicago Cubs’ earlier acquisition of Jose Quintana and a trade deadline deal for Justin Wilson and Alex Avila overshadowed the Washington Nationals’ weekend acquisitions. However, the Nationals’ moves — acquiring Howie Kendrick and Brandon Kintzler as well as their mid-July trade for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson — addressed the biggest issue of the three main contenders for National League supremacy.

The Dodgers and Cubs certainly can use their upgrades. For the Cubs, though, Quintana, Wilson and Avila are unlikely to be the difference between making or missing the playoffs. The Dodgers are running away with the National League West. Barring Clayton Kershaw’s back injury being worse than initially thought, they can survive without their star No. 1 starter and piece it together with the remaining arms. Darvish was a good get, but not essential.

On the other hand, the Nationals were set to be undone by a bullpen that was in such dire straits that after going through too many closers to count, they still couldn’t find one who could handle the job and remain healthy. Had they not done something about their bullpen, they were relatively assured of getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs for a fourth and perhaps last time in the Stephen Strasburg-Bryce Harper era.

So they did something.

It was not a sexy, headline-grabber as getting Zack Britton from the Baltimore Orioles would have been; it was not a repeat of one year ago when they acquired Mark Melancon from the Pittsburgh Pirates, or like the Yankees acquiring David Robertson from the Chicago White Sox; it wasn’t even a lower-level move of acquiring Addison Reed, A.J. Ramos, Watson or Wilson. But considering who was available to them, and the prices they were willing to pay, they did reasonably well in solving the problem.

The biggest name discussed (who wound up staying put) was Britton, but he pitches for the Nationals’ Mid-Atlantic neighbors, geographical rivals and legal adversary over at MASN, the Baltimore Orioles. Even if the decision-makers of the Orioles and Nationals could get beyond their differences to come to an agreement on a Britton trade, envisioning Baltimore owner Peter Angelos signing off on the Britton deal is tantamount to an expedition in search of the yeti. Good luck.

Reed was the next biggest name, but before being sent to the Boston Red Sox, he was a closer for the Nationals’ division rivals, the New York Mets. If the Mets had their preference, they would send their players anywhere other than the Nationals or crosstown Yankees.

The pitchers the Nationals acquired aren’t dominant. It’s important to remember that in today’s game with diversity and roles taking precedence, they have done enough to take that weakness and mitigate it so it does not sabotage their strengths — a high-powered offense and excellent top-two starting pitchers in Strasburg and Max Scherzer.

The Strasburg nerve impingement in his right elbow is his annually worrisome injury, but like Kershaw and the Dodgers, the sizable division lead by the Nationals gives them the freedom to put Strasburg on the disabled list and be judicious with his use for the rest of the season so he’s ready for the playoffs.

Judging by what was on the market at the deadline, the cost of the bigger names and the lack of movement for all but a few, the Nationals did everything that realistically could be done to bolster their bullpen.

Perhaps it does not “solve” the problem in a clear way as getting Britton or even Robertson would have done. But diversity and depth along with the absence of the designated “closer” who is expected to be in the game whether he is the ideal arm for the game situation could help them rather than hurt them. For example, if the Nationals are playing either the Dodgers — and the last out comes down to lefty-swinging Cody Bellinger — or the Cubs with Kyle Schwarber, do they want to be wedded to the “closer” even if he’s a righty and vulnerable to a power lefty bat? Or do they want the freedom to use Oliver Perez, Enny Romero or Doolittle?

Obviously, it’s preferable to have designated roles for the relievers, but that faux template is slowly being discarded for expediency regardless of anyone’s feelings. In the 2016 postseason, the Cleveland Indians began using Andrew Miller in the middle innings and the Dodgers used Kenley Jansen in the seventh inning. Teams no longer are attached to that brainless and automatic “sixth inning man-seventh inning man-setup man-closer” designed to keep the players quiet while giving managers cover from having to think and be responsible for what they’re doing.

Teams can’t do this in the regular season. This is not about the regular season. It’s about the playoffs. And in the playoffs, even though the Nationals do not have the lights-out closer, they have several moderately trustworthy veteran arms to use. That is not something they could have said one month ago.

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