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Craig Kimbrel could help any NL East contender solve a division-wide problem

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Craig Kimbrel could help any NL East contender solve a division-wide problem

WASHINGTON --  Progressively, the lines of desperation and declined price will have to intersect.

At least it would seem. Craig Kimbrel’s demands reportedly are receding during his extended unemployment. The needs of contenders in the National League East’s rock fight continue to increase day by day. The sides should be on a path to merge. Right?

Take this week. 

Atlanta announced closer Arodys Vizcaino underwent right shoulder surgery. He’s out for the season. This the day after his would-be replacement, A.J. Minter, gave up three earned runs in ⅔ of an inning. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos acknowledged he heard the chants from Braves fans Tuesday night demanding he sign Kimbrel.

Philadelphia placed reliever David Robertson on the 10-day injured list because of a flexor strain (initially labeled elbow soreness). It used Hector Neris to close Wednesday afternoon. He entered with two runners on base. Neris struck out the first batter, gave up a soft single, hit Wilson Ramos to load the bases, then struck Keon Broxton to end the game. That’s an interesting path to the end.

The Mets are living similar to the Nationals. They have a closer -- Edwin Diaz -- who can be relied on. It’s getting to him which has been such a challenge. Seth Lugo (5.06 ERA), Jeurys Familia (6.48) and Robert Gsellman (3.48) are often dispatched to drag New York to the ninth inning.

All five members of the National League East are in the bottom half of bullpen ERA entering play Friday. Philadelphia is 15th, Atlanta is 22nd, Miami is 24th, New York is 27th and Washington remains last by a wide margin -- almost a run-and-a-half worse than 29th-ranked Baltimore.

The Nationals’ bullpen toiling around with the have nots is endangering the team’s season as a whole, the $190 million payroll investment, the demands of the Lerner family to be better than first-round playoff exits. But, few paths are available to fix it without relinquishing a commodity -- whether human or financial.

Multiple reports claim Kimbrel’s asking price has come down in both years and cash. It may never reach a point of intersection with the Nationals if team ownership remains steadfast against surpassing the competitive balance tax threshold for the third consecutive year. Passing the $206 million roster mark would result in a 50 percent tax on every dollar spent from there on. 

Kimbrel would also cost the Nationals a compensation draft pick and international draft money because he declined a qualifying off from Boston. In all, four layers of cost exist around Kimbrel: salary, luxury tax, a draft pick and international money.

Financial stances can change when circumstances do. Though, the Nationals’ leverage with Kimbrel has evaporated. Owning the league’s worst bullpen is not a promising negotiation point for a team preferring to restrict this final portion of spending. Imagine their pitch: “We’re desperate for your services, but don’t want to spend much.” 

Whichever lagging bullpen signs Kimbrel still needs to subsist until he is ready. In Washington’s case, it continues to hunt for solutions ahead of a six-game road trip which starts Friday in Miami. Trevor Rosenthal’s lost early season, a better way to match up with left-handed hitters, help in the middle and a way to use closer Sean Doolittle less -- he’s on pace for 86 appearances -- are all on the docket. 

“Things haven’t gone the way we envisioned them coming out of camp,” Doolittle said this week. “Part of being a reliever -- you don’t get to this level without having taken some lumps; without having taken some punches. So guys, they might be in the jungle a little bit right now, but they know how to get through this. We’re working on it. Guys are talking to each other about things they can do, whether it’s pitch selection or mechanics or straight up execution to try to get things smoothed out. 

“We’re in it as a group. As a reliever, you can’t have an ego. You have to be ready for whatever the team needs, whatever the group needs and be ready to pick your teammate up.”

Doolittle’s words could have come from the leader of any NL East bullpen. Four contenders with the same problem populate the division. One big name looms. Day by day, the tussle for a fix and leverage goes on. 

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Jacob deGrom wins second straight Cy Young, Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin receive votes

Jacob deGrom wins second straight Cy Young, Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin receive votes

It’s Jacob deGrom again.

The New York Mets ace won the National League Cy Young Award on Wednesday night for the second-consecutive season. Los Angeles left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu finished second and the Nationals’ Max Scherzer placed third. Washington starter Stephen Strasburg also finished tied for fifth behind the St. Louis Cardinals' Jack Flaherty while fellow Nats starter Patrick Corbin received one fifth-place vote to put him in at 11th.

1. Jacob deGrom: 29 first-place votes, 1 second-place vote (207 points)

2. Hyun-Jin Ryu: 1 first-place vote, 10 second-place votes, 8 third-place votes, 7 fourth-place votes, 3 fifth-place votes  (88 points)

3. Max Scherzer: 8 second-place votes, 8 third-place votes, 6 fourth-place votes, 4 fifth-place votes (72 points)

4. Jack Flaherty: 5 second-place votes, 11 third-place votes, 6 fourth-place votes, 4 fifth-place votes (69 points)

5. Stephen Strasburg: 6 second-place votes, 1 third-place vote, 9 fourth-place votes, 8 fifth-place votes (53 points)

Wednesday marked the fourth consecutive top-three finish for Scherzer. Scherzer has finished in the top five every year since he signed a seven-year, $210 million deal to come to Washington in 2015. He won the award in 2016 and 2017. He finished second last season.

Scherzer’s back injuries in 2019 limited his chances to win. He went on the injured list twice, limiting him to 27 starts, the lowest in a full season during his 12-year career. Otherwise, his numbers provided a strong argument he should be right alongside deGrom when being considered for the award. He led the league in strikeouts per nine with a dominant 12.7. Scherzer also led the league in FIP -- fielding-independent pitching -- as well as strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Ryu’s candidacy hinged on his control. He put together the league’s best walk rate, ERA and ERA-plus. However, he, like Scherzer, was limited in total production. Ryu made 29 starts and threw 182 ⅔ innings. He started the All-Star Game -- selected by Dodgers manager Dave Roberts -- and went through a second-half fade when deGrom surged.

DeGrom checked all the boxes. His workload was high (32 starts, 202 innings pitched). He led the league in strikeouts. He tied for the lead in WHIP, was fourth in batting average against and first in OPS against at a mere .580. His 1.44 ERA in 92 innings after the All-Star break put him in position to claim the award again.

DeGrom joins Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Randy Johnson (four in a row), Greg Maddux (four in a row) and Sandy Koufax as back-to-back winners of the award since its inception in 1956.

Strasburg led the National League in innings pitched before become the Most Valuable Player in the Nationals’ World Series win. He is a free agent after opting out of the final four years and $100 million on his contract. He’s never finished higher than third in Cy Young Award voting, though 2019 was his second-best year by bWAR. 

Like deGrom, Flaherty used his work after the All-Star break to push into consideration. His 0.91 ERA in 99 innings and 15 starts made him the best National League pitcher from July on. His 4.64 ERA prior to the schedule break held back his overall numbers. Flaherty is just 24 years old and should be back for consideration in the future.

Corbin joined the Nationals last offseason on a six-year, $140 million deal after seven years with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He went 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA and 238 strikeouts in 202 innings for Washington this season.

The Nationals and Dodgers accounted for six of the 11 pitchers to receive Cy Young votes. Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler also garnered ballot selections, finishing eighth and ninth, respectively.

Matt Weyrich contributed to this report.

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Picking Jacob deGrom for NL Cy Young was the only easy decision on my ballot

Picking Jacob deGrom for NL Cy Young was the only easy decision on my ballot

The only easy part is at the top. Jacob deGrom was the clear winner of the 2019 National League Cy Young Award. The rest was a tussle.

Good news about voting for this award: It’s more statistics-oriented than MVP (an individual’s definition of “value” can have a big influence there), and is not a nonsense award based on almost nothing, the way Manager of the Year is. 

However, those circumstances don’t make it easy to vote for -- this year in particular. On my ballot, the gap between second and fifth is minute; to the point I would be comfortable with a shuffle in almost any order. But, you have to pick and slot guys in, so here is the ballot:

  1. Jacob deGrom
  2. Max Scherzer
  3. Hyun-Jin Ryu
  4. Jack Flaherty
  5. Stephen Strasburg

Locally, the first thing that will pop is Strasburg’s position relative to Scherzer. So, to reiterate: The gap between second and fifth on my ballot is very slim. I’d prefer extrapolating this with decimal points for a better illustration than two versus five.

In Strasburg’s favor this year: his workload. He led the league in innings pitched and pitches thrown. He also finished second in Baseball-Reference’s measurement of WAR. Where he falls behind is in peripheral categories. Scherzer was better in FIP, WHIP, OBP-against, strikeouts per nine, strikeout-to-walk ratio, adjusted ERA-plus and fWAR (by a wide margin). When Scherzer pitched, he was the more effective pitcher. His strikeouts per nine (12.69) was the highest rate among qualifiers since Randy Johnson (13.41) in 2001. It’s the gap in innings that brings Strasburg into the conversation.

Overall, Scherzer’s position across multiple categories -- leading a handful when deGrom is extracted -- put him second, narrowly, on my ballot.

Ryu’s command was striking. His league-leading 1.18 walks per nine was the best since Bartolo Colon’s 1.11 in 2015. He, like Scherzer, trailed the others on my ballot in innings pitched (183). And, his ERA argument took a hit when FIP (fielding-independent pitching) is introduced to the conversation. He’s fourth there. Though, Ryu comes back in ERA-plus, where he is first. He’s eighth overall in bWAR and fifth in fWAR, undermining his case to a degree and put him behind Scherzer on my ballot.

Flaherty’s post-All-Star break run launched him onto ballots: 0.91 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, .142 batting average against, 124 strikeouts, 23 walks. Dominant. Beforehand? A 4.64 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. In the end, half his starts were so good, he’s competitive for a top-five spot.

Each time I went through, I found arguments for moving all four players to different positions, which, in the end, is mostly moot. The winner is deGrom. Again.

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