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Bounceback seasons will determine which NL East bullpen is the best in 2020

Bounceback seasons will determine which NL East bullpen is the best in 2020

Let’s take a burn around the National League East position groups while waiting for baseball to return.

The earliest a pitch could be thrown is mid-May. So, we’ll be going around the division group by group. Today, the bullpens, a topic to make the hair on the arms of Nationals fans stand.

For consistency, we’ll use Baseball-Reference’s WAR computation when looking at the players. And keep crossing fingers baseball will be back as soon as possible.

Atlanta Braves

Closer: Mark Melancon, 0.9
Key setup men: Will Smith, 2.2; Shane Greene, 2.1; Luke Jackson, 0.7

Overview: The Braves tried to fix things in the middle of last season. Hence the arrival of Melancon and Greene. They quickly added Smith, formerly San Francisco’s All-Star closer, in the offseason. Don’t be surprised if he supplants Melancon as the closer. On paper, Atlanta has the best back-end group. If Jackson can keep the ball in the park more often, the Braves may have one of the better big-league bullpens.

Washington Nationals

Closer: Sean Doolittle, 0.9
Key setup men: Will Harris,1.9; Daniel Hudson, 2.0; Tanner Rainey, 0.6

Overview: They were 29th by ERA, 25th by FIP, and 22nd in fWAR. By lore, a much less math-based assessment, the Nationals' 2019 bullpen was a gasoline truck driven into a bonfire, a GIF- and meme-producing mess which spent months undermining the season, only to finally be overcome. In short, they were bad.

This year should -- “should” always the key term -- be better. Doolittle’s workload can decline. Harris is as reliable as any reliever in baseball. Hudson is unlikely to be as good as last year, but is still a solid option. Rainey is searching for command, not stuff, as his role becomes more important.

At the least, it can’t be worse, right?

New York Mets

Closer: Edwin Diaz, -0.5
Key setup men: Jeurys Familia, -0.4; Dellin Betances, 1.5 (2018); Seth Lugo, 2.4

Overview: Mets fans have their own bullpen griping from a year ago to focus on. Diaz fell off a cliff, Familia wasn’t far behind and the unit was 25th in ERA.

One good thing? Seth Lugo. He was one of baseball’s best relievers in 2019. Lugo finished fourth in fWAR and the names ahead of him are MLB’s best closers: Liam Hendriks, Kirby Yates and Josh Hader.

Diaz’s recovery and Betances' (sore shoulder, Achilles tendon tear) health are the keys here. The only person New York is sure about is Lugo. The rest are wild-cards with high ceilings and low floors.

Miami Marlins

Closer: Drew Steckenrider, -0.2
Key setup men: Brandon Kintzler, 1.8; Ryne Stanek, 0.4; Yimi García, 0.1

Overview: Like most baseball things in Miami, the bullpen isn’t there yet. Steckenrider is the closer because someone has to be. Stanek throws very hard with a fastball-slider combination, and García is a solid next option. Kintzler followed a lousy 2018 with an excellent 2019 in Chicago. He could well end up the Marlins’ closer.

Philadelphia Phillies

Closer: Hector Neris, 1.8
Key setup men: Seranthony Dominguez, 0.0; José Álvarez, 0.8; Victor Arano, 2.0 (2018)

Overview: Phillies fans are in for another season of crossing fingers and covering eyes.

Neris’ splitter was effective enough last season to hold his ERA to 2.93, though his FIP (3.83) was almost a run higher. Dominguez “suffered a setback” this spring during his recovery from an elbow strain which caused him to miss four months last season. Álvarez has a high walk rate and WHIP. Arano is coming back from arthroscopic elbow surgery.

This group needs an overhaul and is one of the reasons Philadelphia is again not expected to make the playoffs despite its major expenditures after the 2018 season.

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Sean Doolittle says Nationals players will continue to support minor leaguers

Sean Doolittle says Nationals players will continue to support minor leaguers

Though the Nationals reversed course on their pay cut for minor-league players, Sean Doolittle still plans on lending his support.

Last week, just hours after it was reported that the Nationals would be reducing the pay rate for minor-league players from $400 per week to $300 for the month of June, Sean Doolittle announced that the major leaguers would cover those cuts.

A short time later, the team announced that it would revert back to the weekly $400 salary for the month of June. While that is good news and something that pleased Doolittle, it does not mean he and other players are done helping minor leaguers in the organization.

On Wednesday Doolittle tweeted out a statement sharing his excitement for the increased pay rates. Additionally, he noted that Nationals players will continue to offer financial help for other players in the organization.

"Nationals players are partnering with More Than Baseball to contribute funds that will offer further assistance and financial support to any minor leaguers who were in the Nationals organization as of March 1."

More Than Baseball is a non-profit organization that aims to provide minor-league baseball players across the country and world with resources to succeed both on and off the field. 


As the back-and-forth drama plays out regarding the 2020 MLB season, it can be easy to find the negatives in the baseball community at the current moment. However, the gestures by Doolittle and the Nationals players show the good, and once again demonstrate Doolittle's ability to be a powerful voice in a complicated time

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MLB return: Schedules of other leagues show how much baseball is scrambling

MLB return: Schedules of other leagues show how much baseball is scrambling

The NBA appeared to pull things together Wednesday, following the NHL.

Basketball is expected to return July 31 in Orlando with an inventive, though truncated, format. A quick eight-game wrap to the regular season will be followed by the playoffs, according to ESPN. All in one place. The NHL will not start training camp before July 1. It has not determined when the playoffs may begin. The league shelved the regular season but will use “hub cities” for a playoff tournament when they deem it safe. No date has been set yet.

Meanwhile, Major League Baseball is trying to launch itself via a much quicker, and earlier, timeline.

Officials want to play at the end of June or start of July. They are currently haggling to get there.

Multiple reports earlier in the week said the league was considering a 50-game schedule. This is not an authentic pursuit of playing just 50 games. Rather, it was a fist clench from league commissioner Rob Manfred against the players’ insistence their prorated salaries will be the lone salary cut. Manfred is suggesting if that is true, then he has the right to dictate scheduling.

The players previously suggested a 114-game schedule. The number between the two proposals -- 82 -- remains the most-likely outcome.


But, baseball continued its jousting and contorting and time loss Wednesday, jeopardizing the entire process. After rejecting the 114-game proposal, the owners said they would not send a counter, according to The Athletic. Further, the league said it has started talks with owners about playing a shorter season without fans, The Athletic reported. This brings the 50-game scenario back into play.

The calendar is not baseball’s friend in the near-term or around the bend. Pushing the season further into the fall and winter increases risk and logistical problems. It also cuts the offseason down.

Blitzing toward a start time with multiple questions about health and the coronavirus still unanswered delivers another set of problems. Baseball needs to race to a start so it can have a legitimate season and acceptable chance at a finish. Most of the prospective money for the season would be delivered by the playoffs. Playing without a postseason would fall into the “something-is-better-than-nothing” category, but barely. Playing a short season would also only amplify the risk-reward questions for the players. Why put so much on the line for 50 games? Or even 82?

And, don’t think both sides are not currently keeping score for the winter of 2021, after the current collective bargaining agreement expires. A brutish labor fight was already coming. Rule changes, perhaps league realignment, the typical eye-gouging over the splits of cash. The core of mistrust for players remains in place: The owners have not shown their full financial situation. Until that changes, both sides will be shouting from bunkers, no-man’s land in between them, whispering to each other how vile the other side is. Agreements are hard to come by in those circumstances.

Sunday marks the close to the first week of June. Players want three weeks of spring training. They also want to start the season sometime between June 30 and July 4. Which means if they can’t suddenly construct a bridge in the next handful of days, they have a week to pull everything together. The other leagues used creativity, an expanded timetable and risk reduction to present viable ways forward. Baseball has deployed none of that to this point.

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