The Nationals still have time to make additions and tweak their roster ahead of 2016 spring training, and Opening Day is over two months away. But as of Feb. 1, there remain questions in the backend of their bullpen.
The big one is whether Jonathan Papelbon will be on the team when pitchers and catchers report to Viera, Fla. in less than three weeks. What seemed last fall like an obvious decision for the Nationals, to cut bait and get rid of him, now doesn't carry the same certainty. Papelbon still remains on the roster, as hard as it is for some to believe.
Even with Papelbon, who is currently set to be their closer, it is not clear who will pitch the eighth inning. And if they dispatch Papelbon, they will need to figure out who pitches the ninth, as well. In today's game, with such an increased emphasis on the bullpen (see Royals in 2014 and 2015), it would seem unwise to enter a season without a proven setup man and closer.
The Nationals, however, could be just fine even without Papelbon. Sure, another experienced reliever would help to add depth. That could be through a free agent signing, a trade, or if Bronson Arroyo somehow makes the rotation out of spring and bumps Tanner Roark back to the bullpen.
If the Nationals trade Papelbon after already sending Drew Storen to Toronto, the eighth and ninth inning would potentially go to some combination of Felipe Rivero, Trevor Gott, Blake Treinen, Shawn Kelley and Yusmeiro Petit.
That may scare some Nats fans, but that group does have potential. Kelley and Petit are both proven veterans who could competently pitch the seventh or eighth inning. Rivero, Gott and Treinen each offer high ceilings as young, hard-throwing pitchers.
Rivero would seem to be the safest bet of those three and some would argue should get a shot at either the eighth or ninth inning in 2016. He was very good as a rookie with a 2.79 ERA in 49 appearances and is a scary sight for opposing hitters with a high-90s fastball from the left side.
Most importantly, however, is that it's not entirely necessary to have a proven closer entering a season. In almost every year there are quality late-inning relievers to be had in mid-summer trades. One could argue it is one of the most attainable positions to fill midseason among those that are considered important.
If you need an elite center fielder midseason, or a top shelf starting pitcher, those are both hard to find and expensive to acquire. Every year, however, there is a very good reliever on a very bad team available for trade.
Last year the Mets got Tyler Clippard in a July trade for pitcher Casey Meisner, who has solid minors numbers but is nowhere to be found on MLB.com's top 100 prospect list. In 2014, the Orioles traded for lefty Andrew Miller and he was a huge factor in their run to the ALCS. If Eduardo Rodriguez becomes an ace in Boston, it will hurt, but Miller was lights out during his time in Baltimore.
In July of 2013, the O's got Francisco Rodriguez, the Indians traded for Marc Rzepczynski and the Dodgers acquired Carlos Marmol. K-Rod left Milwaukee for Baltimore with a 1.09 ERA in 25 appearances, while both Rzepczynski and Marmol overcame early season struggles to dominate with their new teams.
In 2012, the Cardinals scooped Edward Mujica from the Marlins. He went on to hold a 1.03 ERA in 29 regular season appearances and then post a 2.35 ERA in nine playoff outings as the Cards pushed the Giants to seven games in the NLCS.
The Nationals have been on both sides of this equation. In 2010, as they were headed towards another last-place finish, they shipped All-Star closer Matt Capps to the Minnesota Twins. The Twins were charging towards an AL Central title and thought Capps was the missing piece. They gave up Wilson Ramos to get him, but Capps pitched very well in the second half of that season.
This past season it was the Nationals who were seeking relief help as the trade deadline approached. They sent pitching prospect Nick Pivetta - another who did not make the top 100 - to Philly for a six-time All-Star and former World Series champion who brought with him a 1.59 ERA in 37 appearances. His name? Jonathan Edward Papelbon.
That may rank among the worst roster decisions made in this town by any team in recent years, up there with the Redskins signing Albert Haynesworth and the Wizards drafting Jan Vesely sixth overall. But the point still stands: if you need a late-inning reliever, you can usually get them after the season begins and often times for not that much.
Here's a theory: setup men and closers just aren't that valuable to rebuilding teams. What's the point in having a dominant closer if your team can't provide him save opportunities to truly maximize his value? If closers were that valuable during the rebuilding process, then Craig Kimbrel would still be on the Braves and Aroldis Chapman would still be in Cincinatti.
There are 19 days until the Nats' first workout in Viera for pitchers and catchers. Will Papelbon be there? We still don't know, but if he is gone the Nationals will still have plenty of time to find his replacement, whether from within or in a trade with another team.