Giancarlo Stanton came to bat in the seventh inning of game 1 of the Nationals series against the Marlins this week. To protect a one run lead in the late innings against one of the premier power hitters in the game today, the team turned to….Jacob Turner. The same Jacob Turner who owns a career E.R.A. over 5. That plan worked about as well as you might expect with Turner serving up the game-tying home run on a pitch right down the middle. The Nationals bullpen went on to give up the winning run in the ninth and pile on another loss, their 12th already this season. The Nats have a 10 game lead in the standings in spite of the bullpen, not because of it. As every team trots out seemingly 2-3 relievers every night throwing gas and getting outs, the Nationals bullpen has set 12 wins on fire already and been shaky too many times to count. On top of the 12 losses you can point to many other situations where the Nats ‘pen has been bailed out by a sizzling offense thus far. With that in mind, it’s time for Mike Rizzo and the front office to get the offense and the starters some help.
Opening day seems like a long time ago, and it was, but given that most teams still fancy themselves as contenders, below is a list of four relievers on teams that might be willing to deal some of their bullpen pieces to further bolster their farm systems.
Tommy Kahnle, White Sox: Coming into the year, many expected the Nationals to target a top relief pitcher on the White Sox. Not many expected Kahnle, not David Robertson, to be the hottest commodity in the Sox bullpen this year. In this his fourth season, Kahnle has been absolutely ridiculous under the tutelage of renowned pitching coach Dan Cooper. Flashing 100 mph with a nasty slider and bugs-bunny changeup, Kahnle has dominated the American League thus far. He’s given up only 21 baserunners in 28.1 innings and has struck out an astonishing 48 batters thus far (For those scoring at home, that’s a K/9 of 15.25). While he won’t come cheap since he offers three more years of team control, Kahnle would be the exact pitcher you’d want to face Stanton in the situation above. With more seasoning in high-leverage situations and given his success against both right-handed and left-handed batters, the Nationals could be looking at their close of the present and the future.
Justin Wilson, Tigers: Then again, it might be Wilson who could step in to provide stability at the back end of the bullpen. Wilson assumed the closer role for the Tigers in early May and has continued to be a force. With a power Sinker/Cutter combo that touches 97-98 and a filthy hook, Wilson has also thrived this year. He has a K/9 ratio of 13.00 having struck out 39 batters in just 27 innings. With one more year of team control after this one, Wilson would provide a season and a half’s worth of stability. As a power lefty, he would also decrease Dusty Baker’s forced reliance on guys such as Oliver Perez and Matt Grace. Additionally, it would move Enny Romero into lower-leverage situations where he can pitch with confidence. With equal splits against both righties and lefties, Wilson would also be more than just a lefty matchup guy.
Sean Doolittle, A’s: Having just returned from an injury that sidelined him in early April, the former UVA Cavalier would most likely be the cheapest of the options listed. With injuries hampering him over the last two seasons, Doolittle also offers the most uncertainty. Amazingly, since his return from injury, Doolittle has yet to give up a hit or a walk to the 15 left-handed batters he’s faced thus far. While he’s been no chump against righties, Doolittle offers dominance from the left side that the Nationals are craving ever so badly. Looking ahead to the playoffs, Doolittle would be the exact pitcher called up to face guys like Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson, among others. With one more year of team control plus two easily avoidable option years, he offers the exact blend of affordability and low-risk that the Lerners would be looking for.
Brad Hand, Padres: As hard to fathom as it sounds, this might be the guy that would step in and provide the Nationals with their version of Andrew Miller. Given his standing as a former failed starter, Hand would be the perfect piece to bring on for more than an inning at a time to face both right and left handers alike. His splits this year bear that out as the left-hander has actually held right-handed batters to a .576 OPS (On-base plus slugging). His K/9 rate of 11.27 also bears out the fact that he’s been dominant in his conversion to the bullpen. With San Diego in the midst of a gigantic rebuild, they will surely listen to all offers on Hand and their other veterans. Hand offers two more years of team control after this one and under Pitching Coach Mike Maddux, he can take the next step in his evolution as a premier lefty reliever in the NL.
The Nationals would be hard-pressed to trade for all of them, but even just one or two of the guys above can provide the Nationals with stability in the back end of their bullpen. While Baker is of the belief that all the Nationals need is a closer and that everything else would fall into place, it would be wise for Rizzo and the Lerners to get as much relief help as possible. With a couple of key bullpen additions, the Nationals bullpen can combine with their strong starting pitching and offense to make the team a force to be reckoned with come playoff time.