While the Nationals reportedly pursued both Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen in free agency, the team reached its stopping point in the bidding and missed on both players. (While Jansen reportedly took a lesser guarantee with the Dodgers, the Nats obviously could have kept moving up. And it’s not clear that D.C. would have included a valuable opt-out in its deal, as did L.A.) Aroldis Chapman is now with the Yankees and Tyler Thornburg plays for the Red Sox. Wade Davis has been traded to the Cubs, who also struck a deal with Koji Uehara.
All said, the options are dwindling. But the Nationals now face less competition for experienced, ninth-inning arms. And the club may not feel completely compelled to land one this winter, preferring instead to continue developing internal arms while bolstering the late-inning corps with a targeted signing or two.
Let’s take a look at the remaining possibilities, which are somewhat more voluminous than one might think:
The clear top options are all off the board, but pieces remain:
- Greg Holland: There’s no guarantee that Holland will return to being anything like his former self. But he was at one point in the not-so-distant past one of the five or so best relievers in the entire game. And he’s still just 31 years of age. Per Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post, the sides haven’t yet engaged in earnest, though it could be that the Nats were waiting to see how things played out with Jansen.
- Brad Ziegler: Though he’s older than and doesn’t throw as hard as your average late-inning hurler, Ziegler continues to produce an enormous number of groundballs and keeps getting results. It might feel disappointing were he to end up in the 9th for the Nats, given the high-octane arms they’ve recently pursued, but he would at least represent a reasonable option at a reasonable commitment — perhaps leaving the team free to explore further upgrades, if warranted, at the deadline.
- Santiago Casilla & Sergio Romo: Both former Giants righties have spent time locking up wins, though neither managed to hold onto that role for the needy San Francisco organization last year. As with Ziegler, the idea here would be to get a sturdy veteran into the role at a palatable price tag and then allow things to develop from there.
- Neftali Feliz & Daniel Hudson: These pitchers throw hard and feel more like closer types than the older pitchers noted above, but neither has a recent track record of locking down games.
While Davis was the most obvious target for teams that didn’t land one of the top three free-agent closers, there are quite a few other names that could conceivably be pursued:
- David Robertson, White Sox: The Nats reportedly sought to include Robertson in the Adam Eaton deal, and he is perhaps the single most likely target of all the names in this post. The veteran is more solid than great at his anointed job at this point, and he isn’t cheap, but the Nats can afford him and Chicago would no doubt like to cash him in.
- Alex Colome, Rays: It seems that Tampa Bay will continue to hold out for a big return to move the youngster after his breakout 2016 campaign, and the club isn’t exactly selling off assets, so this remains unlikely.
- Francisco Rodriguez, Tigers: There hasn’t been much discussion of KRod despite the Tigers’ stated intention to get younger, but he’d be an interesting target. He showed some peripheral decline last year, but remains hard to square up (6.9 hits per nine) and still gets solid results.
- Sean Doolittle & Ryan Madson, Athletics: The A’s aren’t showing much inclination to deal from the pen, but both of these arms could be of interest. Doolittle is the real prize, despite his balky shoulder, as he’s a premium relief arm when healthy and comes with a cheap contract. Madson could fill a need, but he’s expensive and fell off in 2016.
- Sam Dyson & Jeremy Jeffress, Rangers: It’s still not really clear whether the Rangers have any interest in dealing from their relief staff, but the Nats could take a look at this pair of groundball-heavy relievers. Of course, the Nats have their own worm-burner already on hand, as explored below.
- Tony Watson, Pirates: We’ve heard some suggestions that the Bucs could make Watson available. The 31-year-old southpaw doesn’t have a lengthy track record of closing, but he did step in last year and notched 15 saves. He has thrived on limited good contact in recent years — hitters have a lifetime .251 BABIP against him — but was a bit more home run prone (14.1% HR/FB, 1.33 HR/9) in 2016 than he had been for several seasons.
- Kelvin Herrera, Royals: Kansas City remains in a tough spot, but despite dealing Davis, still hasn’t done anything to suggest a full-blown rebuild is afoot at this point. Herrera remains all the more important to the team’s near-term chances after that swap, but he’d also hold immense appeal on the trade market. The power hurler seemingly turned a corner last year, finally both racking up strikeouts (10.8 K/9) and limiting the free passes (1.5 BB/9) in another productive season. With two years of affordable control remaining, he’d require a significant acquisition price.
- Raisel Iglesias, Reds: The live-armed righty may or may not ever return to the rotation, but if he doesn’t then he could be quite an exciting reliever, as he showed after returning from elbow issues last year. Of course, Cinci would be justified in putting a high asking price on Iglesias, even if his health is in question.
- Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals: It’s not particularly easy to see the Nats and Cards lining up, and Rosenthal comes with big questions (a worrying loss of control, elbow/shoulder issues) as well as a fairly hefty price tag. But if St. Louis prefers to send him out and the Nats are willing to roll the dice a bit, there’s no denying the upside in Rosenthal’s powerful right arm.
- Arodys Vizcaino, Braves: Speaking of risk and reward — as with Rosenthal, relating to health and control) — the 26-year-old Vizcaino comes with both. He has produced outstanding results at times, and has a closer’s arsenal, but faltered down the stretch while battling oblique issues. Also like Rosenthal, it’s a bit difficult to imagine the Nats giving up what would be needed while staking such an important job on this type of pitcher.
- Cody Allen & Andrew Miller (Indians), Dellin Betances (Yankees), Zach Britton (Orioles): These four talented relievers figure to stay with their respective organizations. But perhaps there’s at least some space for a deal if the Nationals shoot for the moon in trade talks.
As presently constituted, the Nationals’ pen has a grand total of 14 MLB saves to its credit, so there’s an obvious lack of experience in that role. But as skipper Dusty Baker explained (as reported in the above-cited WaPo piece), closers aren’t typically acknowledged as such until they’ve been given and run with an opportunity. As he put it: “Next thing you know, voilà! We’ve got a closer. That’s how it happens.” GM Mike Rizzo, too, suggested that the organization likes its internal slate of possibilities, even if they haven’t yet done that particular job at the game’s highest level.
So, it seems at least possible to imagine that the Nats will use their funds to add elsewhere and pick up a few set-up types via free agency, leaving the ninth in the hands of someone who’s already in the organization. In that case, who might be considered?
- Shawn Kelley: His three-year, $15MM deal looks like a bargain after the 32-year-old turned in a 2.64 ERA with a sparkling ratio of 12.4 K/9 to 1.7 BB/9 a season ago. The team has long suggested that Kelley’s elbow health may not allow him to take a closing job, but it’s also perhaps arguable that added consistency in routine would be good for him. He did pick up seven saves last year, though he was hardly flawless in the role. Even if he isn’t relied upon to take the ball three days in a row or to provide multi-inning work when it might be preferable, Kelley certainly has the profile of a closer.
- Blake Treinen: Though not a huge strikeout pitcher, the 28-year-old again induced grounders on more than 60% of the balls put in play against him in 2016. And he provided 67 innings of 2.28 ERA pitching. The biggest question here is in the walks department; Treinen has issued more than four free passes per nine in each of the last two years.
- Koda Glover: The 23-year-old didn’t maintain his gaudy strikeout tallies in the majors (or, in truth, at Triple-A), but he’s perhaps the closest thing the Nats have to a closer prospect. Credited with a big heater and power slider, Glover may be the guy in D.C. in the future, but it’s far from clear whether he’s ready for the job right now.
- Sammy Solis: There are some health questions here, perhaps making a move to the ninth unwise. But Solis brings a bulldog mentality to the hill and pitched to a 2.41 ERA in 41 frames last year. His 10.3 K/9 were accompanied by 4.6 BB/9, though, and Solis arguably remains too important to the club as a lefty set-up piece to take a shot on him in the closer’s role out of the gates.
- Others: Before he was dealt, starting pitching prospect Reynaldo Lopez might’ve made sense as a conversion candidate. And power southpaw Felipe Rivero could be in contention had he not been shipped in the deadline deal for Mark Melancon. But there are other interesting, somewhat analogous pieces on hand. Righty A.J. Cole still seems to be on the outside of the rotation competition, but is almost certainly ready for a full chance at the majors; if his stuff plays up in the pen, it’s not inconceivable that he could emerge. And forgotten man Trevor Gott made it onto the map with a huge fastball. Though he saw minimal major league time in 2016 and wasn’t great at Triple-A, it’s possible he could turn the corner and take a crack at the job at some point.
Just for fun, we’ll end this look with a simple poll. Which general approach do you think the Nats are most likely to pursue in addressing the ninth inning? (Link for app users.)