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Can the Nationals remake their entire bullpen?

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Can the Nationals remake their entire bullpen?

Scroll through the Nationals' 2015 pitching register and then answer this question: Which relievers on that list are locks to make the 2016 Opening Day roster?

Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen might return, but both right-handers are going to be the subject of plenty of trade speculation over the next several weeks after seeing their respective seasons crater in September.

Craig Stammen is now a free agent after getting non-tendered late Wednesday night. Matt Thornton and Casey Janssen became free agents last month.

Aaron Barrett won't make it back from Tommy John surgery until August or September. Matt Grace, Rafael Martin and Sammy Solis were far too erratic during their rookie seasons to merit a guaranteed job.

Really, the only two guys you'd feel comfortable penciling in right now are Felipe Rivero and Blake Treinen. And neither has exactly proven himself a quality big-league reliever over more than a couple of months.

So where does that leave Mike Rizzo as next week's Winter Meetings loom and the Hot Stove League kicks into high gear? Is it possible for a team to remake its entire bullpen in one offseason?

Possible? Maybe. Likely? Probably not.

The Nationals very well may sign multiple free agents (Darren O'Day continues to reside atop their wish list) and very well may acquire another reliever or two via trade (Aroldis Chapman remains there for the taking, if anybody's willing to give up a whole lot in return). But come April, they're going to have to take the field with at least a few holdovers or other homegrown relievers on their staff.

You could do worse than starting with Rivero. The left-hander was a revelation during his rookie campaign, flashing an upper-90s fastball by season's end and displaying impressive poise given his lack of experience. He might well be closer material some day, though for now the Nationals figure to use him as their top lefty setup man.

Treinen isn't nearly as polished as Rivero, but the right-hander's stuff might be more impressive. Few pitchers in the sport can claim a 98-mph sinker with as much movement as he produces, even if his command of that pitch betrays him too often. Treinen needs to figure out how to be more effective against left-handed hitters (who torched him to the tune of a .934 OPS this season) but at worst he looks like a competent middle man in a major-league bullpen.

Beyond that ... well, the Nationals have some work to do. If they really do part ways with both Papelbon and Storen, they'll need a new closer (not to mention a new eighth-inning guy). That's not a position any GM wants to find himself in, so take Rizzo at least somewhat seriously when he suggests he'll only move Paplebon and/or Storen if somebody makes him a "real baseball offer."

Even if they keep both late-inning right-handers, the Nationals still will have several bullpen holes to fill. They'll need another lefty to go along with Rivero. And they'll need somebody who can at least attempt to fill Stammen's role as the jack of all trades.

That's not an easy fix. There are only so many pitchers out there who can transition seamlessly from long man to setup man to emergency closer like Stammen did from 2012-14. Obviously, the Nationals weren't convinced he can recapture that form after tearing his flexor tendon in April and missing the rest of the season, or else they would have tendered him a contract before Wednesday night's deadline. But good luck finding somebody to fill that void. They never did find anybody this season.

Consider it just one of several challenges facing the Nationals this winter as they attempt to overhaul a vital part of their roster that played a major role in their disappointing 2015 season.

MORE NATIONALS: Report: Nationals plan to shop Escobar at Winter Meetings

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Wild-card tracker: Nationals thankful for Marlins, Cubs slide back

Wild-card tracker: Nationals thankful for Marlins, Cubs slide back

Back before all this mania, Miami, as putrid as its season would be, loomed as a factor.

Handling the Marlins would be key for any contender. It wasn’t a question of winning, but of how much winning would occur against one of the league’s worst teams.

Following Friday’s 6-4 win in a sparsely attended Marlins Park, the Nationals moved to 14-3 against Miami this season. They are 16 games over. 500 for the year. They are plus-11 against Miami alone.

Asdrúbal Cabrera homered again, Trea Turner hit two homers, and Daniel Hudson pitched two innings to earn the save. So, the Nationals, 84-68, hold a one-game lead for the top wild-card spot. Milwaukee won again, joining a long list of teams to beat up on the Pittsburgh Pirates since the post-All-Star-break portion of the schedule began. Pittsburgh may be the league’s worst team, at the moment, and the Brewers host it for two more this weekend.

Trouble is brewing for Chicago. It lost again to St. Louis -- this time a 2-1 mid-day defeat in Wrigley Field. The Cubs have lost four in a row. They are three games behind the Nationals and two behind the Brewers. Their path to 90 wins, which may ultimately be the threshold for postseason entrance, is narrowing.

The Mets won their third consecutive game. They are hanging around, 3 ½ games behind the Brewers with nine remaining on the schedule. Their wild-card elimination number is six.

News for Philadelphia is more dire. The Phillies dropped to 78-74 Friday night following a 5-2 loss in Cleveland. They are now five behind Milwaukee. Their wild-card elimination number is a mere five. 

Which brings us to the more detailed math portion of this program. Here are the postseason chances for each team, according to fivethirtyeight.com:

Nationals, 96 percent

Brewers, 84 percent

Cubs, 15 percent

Mets, 5 percent

Phillies, less than one percent

Coming up Saturday:

St. Louis at Chicago, 2:20 p.m., Hudson (16-7, 3.35 ERA) vs. Quintana (13-8, 4.37)

New York at Cincinnati, 4:10 p.m., Wheeler (11-7, 4.09) vs. DeSclafani (9-9, 3.93)

Washington at Miami, 6:10 p.m., Strasburg (17-6, 3.49) vs. Yamamoto (4-5, 4.87)

Philadelphia at Cleveland, 7:10 p.m., Vargas (6-8, 4.48) vs. Plesac (8-6, 3.64)

Pittsburgh at Milwaukee, 7:10 p.m., Marvel (0-2, 9.00) vs. Davies (10-7, 3.70)

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Howie Kendrick needed the Nationals, and they needed him

Howie Kendrick needed the Nationals, and they needed him

Howie Kendrick knew he was in trouble May 19, 2018, when he was down on the warning track and could not control his ankle. His Achilles tendon tore after he moved back for a fly ball in left field. His season ended. His career could have well ended with his season.

Last offseason’s shift in free agency affected those still in their prime. The market tormented Bryce Harper and Manny Machado before forking over large sums. It treated veterans destined to be part-time players worse. Super-utility player Marwin Gonzalez didn’t sign with Minnesota until Feb. 25. He turned 30 in April and was coming off a 2.5-WAR season for a team that went to the American League Championship Series. Yet, he couldn’t find a job anywhere.

This would have been Kendrick’s plight. Perhaps it would have been more challenging. He may never have found a job via a new contract. Think of the advertisement: soon-to-be 36-year-old coming off Achilles tendon tear, with reduced positional flexibility and past hamstring problems, seeks part-time work. 

Kendrick vowed from the start he would be back, healthy, and just ride out the recovery timeline as it was dictated. The second year of his contract made the process easier. It also all but assured him of a job again with Washington. At just $4 million, even as a bench player, Kendrick’s salary was easy to accept. If he showed good health and a quick bat in spring, he would again team with Matt Adams as a potent left-right combination off the bench. The second-year saved him from graveling in the offseason.

“if that was the last year of my deal, I don’t know if I would have been in the Major Leagues this year,” Kendrick said. “Because a lot of times the way the league is now, bringing veteran guys back and being around the game, you don't see too many veteran guys around anymore. 

“Having the ability to come back to a place I really enjoy and get to be around these guys... It's been fun. We got a lot of great young guys here, guys like [Victor Robles], [Juan] Soto, [Anthony] Rendon, [Trea] Turner, those guys they keep you going every day and it's been fun. And it’s been cool to be able to see these guys grow and they've helped me out too with my game.”

Kendrick is having his best offensive season. Delivering it this year became an enormous factor in the Nationals’ survival and turnaround. Ryan Zimmerman has been to the plate 168 times in 2019. Kendrick has filled the gap with one of the most potent part-time -- rightfully not full-time -- bats in the majors.

His OPS-plus is a career-high 142. His second-best season in that category? Back in 2011, when he was 27 years old in Los Angeles. His OPS is 119 points higher than any other season, his slugging percentage 88 points higher. He’s two homers shy of tying his career-best mark despite 237 fewer plate appearances than he had in 2011.

“I'm not an everyday guy anymore and I know that and [Davey Martinez] knows and I'm not going to complain one bit about the way I’ve been used,” Kendrick said. “When I play, I play. When I don't, I’m ready to play and go in the game and I’ve kind of streamlined that process a little more, I’ve figured out, being in the National League how to prepare myself and be ready. 

“We've come up with little drills for when we pinch-hit and things like that to be as ready as we can. And then once you get in the game, whatever’s going to happen is gonna happen, and that’s what I try to look at. Keep the same mindset as hey I prepared and I’m going to go out here and try to do my job and that's' all you can ask for. I think your teammates know that, and I think your coaches know that. I think that’s the biggest part of it, and mentally you just have to know you're not always going to succeed.” 

Though this year, he has -- a lot. 

Kendrick’s career-best season exists because he didn’t have to wade through the market. The second year of his contract provided him a work haven despite his age and major injury. His work during it likely created a chance for him to sign yet another one, something which may have otherwise not happened in the first place.

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