The Nats Didn’t Lose Their Best Reliever, but it Could Hurt All the Same

It’s one thing to lose a reliever, it’s another to lose a closer. The Nationals’ relatively effective closer, Jonathan Papelbon, went on the DL yesterday, and this is an issue for the team. Despite the fact that almost everyone in the bullpen has outperformed Papelbon, almost anyone else would have been easier to lose for 15 days (or more), because of the ripple effect of losing a closer.

First, to finish off games, Dusty Baker and Mike Maddux will have to decide if they want to try to establish a closer. This gives some desired stability to the bullpen roles, even though closers are often misused and don’t even need to be the best pitcher. This could also cause conflict when Papelbon returns.

Alternatively, they could go with a closer-by-committee, relying on matchups and each week’s pitch counts to determine who goes. This uncertainty can be harder on the players, although it might make more sense. Either way, there three are obvious candidates – Shawn Kelley, Felipe Rivero, and Blake Treinen.

Kelley has been great all year and would have a sub-2.00 ERA but for one bad inning in a blowout against the White Sox.  Rivero, who seems to have been used very effectively in every tight spot outside of the ninth inning, has a bad ERA. He’s also in danger of being overused, although he’s thankfully now on pace for fewer than 80 appearances. But he strikes everyone out, and seems to have the stuff for the role.

Speaking of stuff, Treinen has incredible stuff, and his numbers are all great (except for those 13 walks in 27 1/3 IP – kind of important). But he has had mixed success in late/close situations, so there is concern there.

Three candidates, no hands-down clear winner. Despite that, the Nats bullpen has been really good all year. They are third in the NL in ERA, and second in OPS against and save percentage. Besides the guys already there, they’ve got some options to help fill in, outside of the closer role, while Papelbon’s out.

First up is Matt Belisle, who was great last year after finally being freed from Colorado. Nats fans are understandably skeptical, considering he had elbow surgery this winter and an unimpressive spring before being called up for contract reasons, and then quickly landing on the DL.

Even if Belisle doesn’t succeed, they have some other options. Erik Davis has performed well enough in Triple-A Syracuse to warrant a call up. Abel de los Santos has looked good as well, albeit with a few too many walks. Matt Grace and Bryan Harper both look like they’d be effective as lefty specialists.

If they want to get crazy, there’s also Lucas Giolito. With as good as he is, does it makes sense for him to follow the Johan Santana career path of introducing himself to the majors through the bullpen? Or is there too much worry that he’d follow the Joba Chamberlain career path instead? Similarly, Reynaldo Lopez has looked very impressive, and many suspect his ultimate destination is the bullpen anyway.

The problem is, none of these guys seem ready to close. Trevor Gott is the only one who really appears destined for closer some day, but he’s not doing well enough in Syracuse to inspire confidence right now. Filling in for a missing bullpen spot is doable, but they really don’t have a archetypal closer waiting for a chance.

The Nats could think about a trade, but Rizzo doesn’t seem like one who will overpay. Since most sellers probably aren’t really ready to sell yet, they’d probably have to wait a few weeks. That’s not to suggest they won’t be shopping a month from now, even if Papelbon comes back healthy.

Right now, though, the Nats will probably just soldier on with the guys they have. If someone stumbles, they will likely looked to the minors and bring someone up to fill the space.

If Kelley, Rivero, or Treinen went on the DL, we’d probably worry a bit less, even if the case can be made that each one is better than Papelbon. Instead, despite his shaky outings, there is some comfort in having, well, a closer as your closer. The Nats problem isn’t that they lost their best reliever, because they didn’t. The real issue is that they lost the guy who pitches at the end of the game.

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