When the Nationals were 19-31 in May, a playoff push seemed unlikely. At best, it would take until at least late August for them to truly be in the mix. One mid-season surge later, the Nationals are 52-45 and hold the top Wild Card position in the NL, sitting 5.5 games behind the Braves in the NL East. Whereas they were in line to have an inactive trade deadline, they can be buyers now.
For the better part of two months, I’ve held a different opinion than most people. Since Paul Menhart took over as the team’s pitching coach, the bullpen has seen significantly more success, despite a relative lack of depth. The trio of Wander Suero, recent addition Fernando Rodney, and Sean Doolittle was a large part of what got Washington back on track.
Even so, one thing has startled me a bit over that stretch. Even though the starting rotation (especially Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin) have gone deep into games and given up very little damage, Davey Martinez has struggled to keep relievers effectively rested. There was a stretch late last month that particularly caught my attention.
A reliever tracker request? Sure! #OnePursuit
Fernando Rodney (tonight): 11 pitches
Javy Guerra/Tanner Rainey/Wander Suero: 4/5 days, ending on Sunday
Sean Doolittle: 3/5, ending Sunday
Tony Sipp (Sun.): 3 pitches
Matt Grace (Sat.): 14 pitches
Jonny Venters (AA Sat.) 6 pitches https://t.co/aas6Vb8uWj
— Stephen Newman (@stephen_newman1) June 26, 2019
Clearly, using relievers four times in five days is unsustainable. Yet Martinez’s hand has often been forced. The addition of Rodney has marginally helped, but there continues to be a usage problem.
Matt Grace (tod) 4p, BTB
Tanner Rainey (tod) 12p, BTB
Wander Suero (tod) 8p, 3 consec
Sean Doolittle (Sat) 20p, BTB
Tony Sipp (Sat) 10p
Fernando Rodney (Fri) 15p
Javy Guerra (7/5) 22p, BTB
Jonny Venters (7/5) 23p, BTB (IL)
— Stephen Newman (@stephen_newman1) July 14, 2019
Interestingly, this dilemma hadn’t bore its head at any point—until this past week.
On Sunday (7/14), with Doolittle unavailable (having thrown 32 pitches across the previous two days), Martinez was forced to turn to Matt Grace in the ninth inning of a tie game against the Phillies. The lefty proceeded to surrender a walk-off home run.
On Wednesday, Davey turned to Suero in the seventh inning. The trouble was that Suero was dealing with an unfortunate family matter (the specifics still haven’t been disclosed) and was ill-prepared to pitch.
Wander Suero said he received "bad news" before the game and his "head was not in the game" before he took the mound. He did not specify what happened, and he did not communicate what happened to anyone on the Nationals because he's "a competitor." Suero added he's OK physically.
— Sam Fortier (@Sam4TR) July 18, 2019
It could be argued that if Suero had said something, the Nationals wouldn’t have suffered such a poor fate (he gave up three runs, beginning a bullpen implosion). However, who else would they have turned to with a one-run lead in the seventh inning? Tanner Rainey? Javy Guerra? Neither inspire much confidence.
Friday night against the Braves was the most interesting yet. Davey burned Rainey, Suero, and Rodney in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings, despite trailing by two runs. It wound up paying off, thanks to a Victor Robles two-run homer in the ninth, but then Martinez did the unthinkable. Rather than using a rested Doolittle in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game, he opted for a second inning out of Rodney—a 42-year-old who hadn’t recorded more than three outs in over a year. Naturally, it backfired, as Rodney lost his command before giving up a game-winning bases-loaded hit to Josh Donaldson.
The Nationals have always needed a left-handed reliever—just like they seem to every season. Grace, Tony Sipp, and Jonny Venters can’t be inserted into high-leverage (no less postseason) situations and be trusted to get hitters out.
The need for a true back-of-the-bullpen arm, however, is now even more pressing. Washington doesn’t need a closer. Suero can still be trusted to get three outs in the seventh or eight inning, as can Rodney in the eighth or ninth, but they cannot be overextended or used as frequently as the often has been—the latter also applies to Doolittle, not to mention the other lesser arms.
But who would be the best solution?
Jake Diekman has been poked around as a low-cost option for many teams, including the Nationals. Pitchers like Shane Greene and Sam Dyson may also become available.
Two potential 7th/8th inning additions for the #Nats: Shane Greene (DET) and Sam Dyson (SF).
— Stephen Newman (@stephen_newman1) July 20, 2019
I question whether the surging Giants will even be willing to sell pieces, but if they are, lefties Will Smith (an upcoming free agent) and Tony Watson (who is under contract for 2020) are equally intriguing. As for Greene, there are reports suggesting that the Tigers want top prospect Carter Kieboom in return, which is a deal-breaker.
In my estimation, the perfect addition would be Mychal Givens. Even after this season, he would have two more years before becoming a free agent. His stats aren’t great this season (4.34 ERA and five blown saves in 13 attempts), but he has shown flashes in the past and can be dominant—he averages 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings, which places him among the best in baseball. He also has a sub-2.00 ERA since the end of May.
His situational splits are very noteworthy. Givens has a 6.14 ERA the ninth inning over 22 innings pitched, averaging a walk every other inning with a .256 batting average against him. He’s tossed 16 1/3 innings outside of ninth innings, and 12 2/3 of them have come in the eighth. Over those appearances, his ERA is only 1.42, opposing hitters are batting .146 against him, and he has 15 strikeouts against four walks. Ironically, that level of production is mirrored by Suero.
Before this season, those were the situations he was generally pitching in—if not even lower leverage—so that’s where he’s comfortable. That’s perfectly fine, from the Nationals’ perspective. They have Doolittle to close games, Rodney could remain their backup closer, and the Givens/Suero/Rodney trio could split seventh and eighth inning setup duties, along with lower-leverage spots in late innings, decreasing the reliance on other relievers.
Givens should be relatively inexpensive to acquire, and the Orioles are likely open to dealing him. Everything lines up—except for their negotiating history.
Baltimore's Mychal Givens is an established reliever. The Nationals need established relievers. The problem: the last trade between these two franchises came in 2001, when one of them was in Montreal. https://t.co/u2wkLW8zhG
— Barry Svrluga (@barrysvrluga) July 17, 2019
In any event, it would behoove Washington to add an established late-inning reliever ahead of the July 31 trade deadline. Doing so would give the Nationals at least one advantage over anyone else in the NL East, which is what it takes to both gain separation from the Phillies and close the gap that Atlanta currently holds over them.
One thing appears to be sure: Mike Rizzo is looking for at least one arm, as he should be.