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How bad is this Nationals bullpen? It's worse than you thought

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How bad is this Nationals bullpen? It's worse than you thought

Is this the worst Nationals bullpen in organization history?

A simple question with a simple answer: yes.

But, how bad? Why? What was the process to get here?

First, this season’s ugliness. The Nationals come to a rest Monday in a rare off-day with a 6.34 bullpen ERA. That total has a choke hold on last place in Major League Baseball, positioning Washington almost half a run behind 29th-place and not trying Baltimore. Minnesota resides in the middle of the pack, yet is more than two runs ahead of the Nationals.

How much is this year an organizational outlier? Here’s the rundown of bullpen ERA since team became annually competitive:

2019: 30th overall, 6.34 ERA

2018: 15th, 4.05

2017: 23rd, 4.41

2016: 2nd, 3.37

2015: 10th, 3.46

2014: 4th, 3.00

2013: 17th, 3.56

2012: 7th, 3.23

The Nationals have attempted to cure their past bullpen problems in a variety of ways. They tried to pay closers Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen hefty sums, but were turned down. They used a homegrown closer, Blake Treinen, but that didn’t work (and Treinen has been one of the league’s best closers since being traded to Oakland in 2017). They made a trade -- Treinen, Jesus Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse -- for Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler. The immediate returns were beneficial. The long-term assessment of that trade will rest with Luzardo, who MLB Pipeline labels the top left-handed pitching prospect in the minor leagues. Luzardo roared through spring training this year before a left shoulder strain stalled him in March. Doolittle and Treinen have been a wash this season.

This bullpen was constructed through low-cost investment. Matt Grace, Wander Suero and Justin Miller make just above the league minimum. Tony Sipp has a base salary of $1 million. Kyle Barraclough makes $1.725 million. Doolittle is underpaid at $6 million. He’s ninth among National League relievers in WAR and tied for 36th in 2019 base salary for relievers.

Trevor Rosenthal is the bullpen’s most expensive -- and ineffective -- piece, but he is actually a cost savings in a way. Rosenthal and Barraclough combined make almost $5 million less than Kintzler and Madson did. Plus, the competitive balance tax (luxury tax) threshold has risen, further driving down cost. The Nationals went cheap in the bullpen this year. They have paid for it on multiple levels.

It’s not just ERA: The Nationals are 21st in strikeouts per nine innings; 24th in walks per nine innings; 29th -- by 0.1 percent -- in left on base percentage.

Grace has allowed as many homers in 18 innings this season as he did in 50 innings in 2017, when he was a slightly above league average reliever. Barraclough is allowing more than a hit per inning following his worst season in the majors, which was also his fourth consecutive year of ERA-plus decline.

The starters have allowed 108 earned runs -- in part because the bullpen so often lets inherited runners to score. The bullpen has given up 79 despite throwing the fewest innings of any bullpen in the major leagues.

So, back to the opening question: How bad is it? It’s the worst it has ever been, and it’s not close.



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Nationals CF Victor Robles closing in on a return to the lineup

Nationals CF Victor Robles closing in on a return to the lineup

He has not played since Game 2 of the National League Division Series when he pulled up because of a hamstring strain after crossing first base. The strain was described at the time as “mild.” Robles has been working toward a return since then.

“We're going to run him a little bit [Sunday],” Davey Martinez said Sunday on a conference call. “He's got to get some treatment, and then we'll see [Monday]. He'll participate in BP and do a little bit more running, and we'll see where we're at [Monday].

“I'm not going to anticipate anything until he comes in [Monday], but he's progressing, and hopefully he'll be ready [Monday].”

Michael A. Taylor replaced Robles in center field. He hit an important solo home run Saturday and is hitting .300 in the postseason. He also made a significant judgment error in the outfield which allowed the Cardinals’ lone Game 2 -- and series -- run to score.

Martinez made it sound like Taylor’s time as the starting center fielder is over when Robles is ready to return.

“Victor has been in center field all year, and he's played really well for us,” Martinez said. “When he's healthy, he'll get a chance to play. But like I said before, we want him to be at 100 percent. So until then, we'll see what happens here in the next day or so.”

Few other changes are expected Monday. Stephen Strasburg will start. Kurt Suzuki -- despite his lack of postseason hitting and trouble throwing out runners -- should be behind the plate.

Reliever Roenis Elías, who has not thrown a pitch in the major leagues since Sept. 5, may be in the mix Monday because Patrick Corbin’s bullpen appearances are now on hold prior to his Game 4 start.

“Moving forward, Elias is going to have to get those big outs against the lefties here in the next couple days,” Martinez said.


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Harper-Dusty reunion? Baker reportedly interviewing for Phillies manager job

Harper-Dusty reunion? Baker reportedly interviewing for Phillies manager job

After the Washington Nationals won back-to-back NL East division titles from 2017-2018 but failed to make it past the NLDS in each of those seasons, they cut bait with manager Dusty Baker by electing not to re-sign him when his contract expired.

Baker now has a chance to return to a managerial role, as the Chicago Tribune is reporting that he’s earned an interview with the Philadelphia Phillies after they fired Gabe Kapler last week.

The Phillies of course employ the services of Bryce Harper, who played under Baker in Washington and has spoken highly of him in the past.

After the Nats let him go, Baker stepped away from baseball for a year before joining the San Francisco Giants as a special adviser to the CEO last season. The two-time All-Star outfielder has managed the Giants, Cubs, Reds and Nationals over parts of 22 seasons, amassing a career record of 1,863-1,636 (.532).

Of the 15 skippers with more wins in their managerial careers, 13 are in the Hall of Fame and one (Bruce Bochy) is a shoo-in to get there. The other is Gene Mauch, who joins Baker as the only two managers with at least 1,600 wins to never claim a World Series title.