NASHVILLE — The Nationals have been in discussions with right-hander Shawn Kelley at the Winter Meetings, general manager Mike Rizzo said, but the club has not come to terms with the free-agent reliever yet.
“We have not completed a deal with Kelly, no,” Rizzo said during his Tuesday afternoon session with reporters at the Opryland Resort.
The Nationals have made no secret about their interest in overhauling their bullpen this winter and have talked with just about every available free agent, as well as clubs willing to listen to trade offers for relievers. Kelley wouldn’t necessarily fall at the top of their wish list, but he would fill a need as a middle reliever and possible setup man.
Kelley, who turns 32 in April, owns a 3.67 ERA in 289 career big-league appearances with the Mariners, Yankees and Padres but is coming off a breakthrough season in San Diego in which he posted a 2.45 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 53 games.
Kelley doesn’t have overpowering stuff — his fastball has consistently averaged about 92 mph over his career — but he does own one of baseball’s best strikeout rates (more than 11 per 9 innings each of the last three years) thanks to a hard-breaking slider, a pitch he threw 55 percent of the time this season.
In Washington, Kelley could take over the role held the last two seasons by Aaron Barrett (another right-handed middle man who relies on his slider but will miss the majority of 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery).
Though they have yet to land a big-name, back-of-the-bullpen arm this winter, the Nationals have begun to assemble some other pieces necessary to rebuild their relief corps. In addition to Kelley, they signed veteran left-hander Oliver Perez to a 2-year, $7 million deal last week, as well as former Nats lefty Sean Burnett to a minor-league contract.
The big questions, of course, remain at the back end of the pen. The Nationals have been fielding offers for both Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen, though to date they haven’t found a deal they’re willing to make. At the same time, they have been pursuing experienced late-inning options like Darren O’Day (who signed with the Orioles for 4 years and $31 million) and Aroldis Chapman (whose reported trade to the Dodgers has been held up amid allegations of domestic assault by the Cincinnati closer).