The Nationals' No. 1 roster priority this winter is crystal clear: Improve a bullpen that was the club's biggest weakness this season.
That, of course, is easier said than done. How exactly does general manager Mike Rizzo go about fixing this problem? Are there in-house options? Who from the current relief corps should stay and who should go? Should replacements come via free agency? Or is a trade the best route?
The final answer probably involves all of the above. The Nats aren't going to buy a brand-new bullpen of free agents. They aren't going to dump everybody from the 2015 group. They will look at young, in-house candidates to fill some roles.
As for the free-agent market ... well, it's not terribly deep. And that could be a problem. With a dearth of quality relievers available, prices are going to be high. And we've seen in the past a reluctance on Rizzo's part to spend high (at least in terms of years) on relief pitching, typically considered the most volatile position in baseball.
But the Nationals have to at least consider this market, so let's run through some of the most notable relievers now available...
He's the prize catch on the market this winter, which tells you exactly what kind of market this is. That's not a knock on O'Day, who is one of the most reliable and most effective relievers in the game. Aside from an injury-plagued 2011, he has made at least 64 appearances with an ERA of 2.28 or lower in six of the last seven years. He's the quintessential right-handed setup man, who can close in a pinch. What's that going to cost this winter? O'Day is a lock to get at least three years and $24 million, and given the widespread interest in him, somebody is probably going to make it four years and $32 million, give or take. Are the Nats willing to make that kind of investment in a 33-year-old reliever, reliable track record or not?
The 35-year-old right-hander had a really nice bounce-back season with the Royals, posting a 2.13 ERA in 68 games, his first appearance in the majors since 2011 with Philadelphia. There's a significant injury track record here, but you can't dispute how good he has been when healthy (2.72 ERA, 1.136 WHIP, 8.8 K/9 his last five big-league seasons).
Our old pal had quite an eventful season, serving as Oakland's closer for awhile, then getting dealt to the Mets in July and winding up pitching in his first career World Series, where he wasn't particularly effective and lost manager Terry Collins' trust. Clippard's strikeout numbers went down and his walk rate went up this year, and that's something of a concern. He has been among the most durable relievers in baseball, but one reason the Nationals were willing to trade him last winter was concern his arm might not hold up much longer. Was this season evidence of that happening, or was it a minor blip?
Only 31 years old, and he has plenty of closing experience (202 career saves) to go along with a 2.57 lifetime ERA and 1.062 WHIP. Soria was a solid setup man for the Pirates down the stretch this season after the Tigers dealt him. Now there's talk of him possibly returning to Detroit. If he's amenable to D.C., though, there could be a decent fit here.
With Matt Thornton departing as a free agent, the Nationals could be in the market for another lefty to go along with Felipe Rivero. Bastardo is the consummate matchup guy, owner of a 3.18 ERA and 1.195 WHIP over the last three seasons with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He strikes out more than 10 batters per nine innings, but he also walks more than four batters per nine frames, so that's a concern.
The 32-year-old right-hander quietly had a huge first half in Seattle (1.00 ERA, 11.8 K/9 in 30 appearances) before getting traded to Toronto, where his ERA rose to 3.79. There's not as much positive track record from this journeyman, who has spent his entire career in the AL. But that first half with the Mariners was evidence there's something in there.
Another under-the-radar right-hander who was brilliant in San Diego this season (2.45 ERA, 1.091 WHIP in 53 games). He has struck out nearly 12 batters per nine innings over the last three years, an eye-popping stat, but that didn't lead to much success until 2015.
You never know what exactly you're going to get from the arrow-slinging righty, but he was really good for the Cubs after a midseason trade (0.75 ERA in 14 games). He has 236 career saves, strikes out a lot of guys but walks a lot of guys as well. He's also going to be 39 next season. Would the Nats take a shot at a 1-year deal for the vet?
He's been the majors 12 seasons now, having pitched for eight different clubs. Qualls' ERA has tending to skew up a bit, and he's not a high-strikeout pitcher. But he's got experience in just about every role, and has been quite durable for a long time.