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Looking at top relievers on the free-agent market


Looking at top relievers on the free-agent market

The Nationals' No. 1 roster priority this winter is crystal clear: Improve a bullpen that was the club's biggest weakness this season.

That, of course, is easier said than done. How exactly does general manager Mike Rizzo go about fixing this problem? Are there in-house options? Who from the current relief corps should stay and who should go? Should replacements come via free agency? Or is a trade the best route?

The final answer probably involves all of the above. The Nats aren't going to buy a brand-new bullpen of free agents. They aren't going to dump everybody from the 2015 group. They will look at young, in-house candidates to fill some roles.

As for the free-agent market ... well, it's not terribly deep. And that could be a problem. With a dearth of quality relievers available, prices are going to be high. And we've seen in the past a reluctance on Rizzo's part to spend high (at least in terms of years) on relief pitching, typically considered the most volatile position in baseball.

But the Nationals have to at least consider this market, so let's run through some of the most notable relievers now available...

He's the prize catch on the market this winter, which tells you exactly what kind of market this is. That's not a knock on O'Day, who is one of the most reliable and most effective relievers in the game. Aside from an injury-plagued 2011, he has made at least 64 appearances with an ERA of 2.28 or lower in six of the last seven years. He's the quintessential right-handed setup man, who can close in a pinch. What's that going to cost this winter? O'Day is a lock to get at least three years and $24 million, and given the widespread interest in him, somebody is probably going to make it four years and $32 million, give or take. Are the Nats willing to make that kind of investment in a 33-year-old reliever, reliable track record or not?

The 35-year-old right-hander had a really nice bounce-back season with the Royals, posting a 2.13 ERA in 68 games, his first appearance in the majors since 2011 with Philadelphia. There's a significant injury track record here, but you can't dispute how good he has been when healthy (2.72 ERA, 1.136 WHIP, 8.8 K/9 his last five big-league seasons).

Our old pal had quite an eventful season, serving as Oakland's closer for awhile, then getting dealt to the Mets in July and winding up pitching in his first career World Series, where he wasn't particularly effective and lost manager Terry Collins' trust. Clippard's strikeout numbers went down and his walk rate went up this year, and that's something of a concern. He has been among the most durable relievers in baseball, but one reason the Nationals were willing to trade him last winter was concern his arm might not hold up much longer. Was this season evidence of that happening, or was it a minor blip?

Only 31 years old, and he has plenty of closing experience (202 career saves) to go along with a 2.57 lifetime ERA and 1.062 WHIP. Soria was a solid setup man for the Pirates down the stretch this season after the Tigers dealt him. Now there's talk of him possibly returning to Detroit. If he's amenable to D.C., though, there could be a decent fit here.

With Matt Thornton departing as a free agent, the Nationals could be in the market for another lefty to go along with Felipe Rivero. Bastardo is the consummate matchup guy, owner of a 3.18 ERA and 1.195 WHIP over the last three seasons with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He strikes out more than 10 batters per nine innings, but he also walks more than four batters per nine frames, so that's a concern.

The 32-year-old right-hander quietly had a huge first half in Seattle (1.00 ERA, 11.8 K/9 in 30 appearances) before getting traded to Toronto, where his ERA rose to 3.79. There's not as much positive track record from this journeyman, who has spent his entire career in the AL. But that first half with the Mariners was evidence there's something in there.

Another under-the-radar right-hander who was brilliant in San Diego this season (2.45 ERA, 1.091 WHIP in 53 games). He has struck out nearly 12 batters per nine innings over the last three years, an eye-popping stat, but that didn't lead to much success until 2015.

You never know what exactly you're going to get from the arrow-slinging righty, but he was really good for the Cubs after a midseason trade (0.75 ERA in 14 games). He has 236 career saves, strikes out a lot of guys but walks a lot of guys as well. He's also going to be 39 next season. Would the Nats take a shot at a 1-year deal for the vet?

He's been the majors 12 seasons now, having pitched for eight different clubs. Qualls' ERA has tending to skew up a bit, and he's not a high-strikeout pitcher. But he's got experience in just about every role, and has been quite durable for a long time.

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8 bold MLB predictions sure to be proven wrong

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8 bold MLB predictions sure to be proven wrong

It doesn't have quite the same feel as Opening Day, but the first games after the MLB All-Star break certainly have their own unique excitement to them.

Teams are jockeying for playoff position, and the trade deadline is rapidly approaching. The Nats have struggled through the first half, but are still within striking distance of a spot in the 2018 postseason, so every game matters.

To help get you ready for the rest of the 2018 regular season, our baseball writers have provided a couple of bold predictions which are sure to be proven wrong by August.

Bold predictions for the second half of the 2018 MLB season:

Ryan Wormeli: 1) Despite the consensus top three teams in baseball all residing in the American League, this year’s World Series champion will be a National League squad.

2) Max Scherzer does NOT win the National League Cy Young award, even though most fans agree he has the best statistical season.

Cam Ellis: 1) Bryce Harper ends up with 45 home runs this season.

2) Koda Glover eventually gets the 7th inning spot.

Michaela Johnson: 1) Nationals win the NL East (I know this VERY bold but like I said I have high expectations).

2) Tanner Roark will get back on top of his game.

Tyler Byrum: 1) The Milwaukee Brewers will drop out of the playoff hunt. 

Every year the Brewers seem to be close to running away with the NL Central. Then, once we get closer to the All-Star break and move beyond they go silent. It’s getting quite ridiculous at this point. Last year they had 50 wins in the first half, finished with only 86.

2) Philadelphia will make a trade deadline acquisition, but it will not get them over the hump. 

There are just too many issues with the Phillies; starting pitching behind Aaron Nola, consistent batting as a team, and the bullpen. They’ve done a fantastic job to piece together a 53-42 record and sit atop the division, but it will be tough to maintain it. 

Right now, they are almost the exact opposite of the Nationals.

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Washington Nationals second half preview

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Washington Nationals second half preview

The second half of the 2018 MLB season gets underway on Thursday night and the Nats find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff picture right now.

In order for them to get past the Braves, Phillies, Diamondbacks, Brewers, etc., a number of things will have to go right in D.C. over the next 65-ish games.

A few questions will be hanging over the franchise these next few months, so to help break down what to look for during the Nats’ second half, I enlisted some fellow NBC Sports Washington writers to help me out, roundtable-style.

Without further ado, here are some second-half predictions.


Ryan Wormeli - @RyanWarmly
Cam Ellis - @KingsleyEllis
Michaela Johnson - @mjohnson262
Tyler Byrum - @theTylerByrum

Most important Nationals player in the second half:

Ryan Wormeli: Stephen Strasburg
Everyone knows Max Scherzer is going to dominate as the Nats’ ace, and everyone knows Bryce Harper will hit home runs. In fact, assuming health, everyone knows the team will be pretty good at most spots. Strasburg, however, is the one that can take the Nats, to quote former Maryland coach Randy Edsall, from “good to great.” If he’s elite as their number two starter, this team is making the playoffs. Book it.

Cam Ellis: Bryce Harper

Michaela Johnson: Bryce Harper 
In the sense that it’s critical he gets hot again. Hopefully, his Home Run Derby win sparks something.

Tyler Byrum: Gio Gonzalez 
There are a couple of ways to look at this. Of course, Bryce Harper needs to be better and Stephen Strasburg has to come back fully healthy from the disabled list for them to even have a chance. Even if those two do that though, it probably will not be enough to make a climb in the division. 

Last year Gonzalez had easily the second-best season of his career. With a 15-9 record and a 2.96 ERA in 2017, Gonzalez could easily be a No. 2 pitcher on half of the teams in the major. This season his ERA is sitting at 3.72 and has only won six of the 19 games he started. More than just looking at his stats, his outings are short too, making it to the seventh inning only three times this year. Additionally, the two-time All-Star is on pace to strike out the fewest batters this season than in the past decade.

Max Scherzer will get the Nationals a win once a week, hopefull,y Strasburg will get it done too, but Gonzalez is the Wild Card.

Biggest X-Factor for the Nationals

Ryan Wormeli: Juan Soto
An X-factor is someone whose play can dramatically impact the team’s success. If they’re successful, the team wins. If they play poorly, the team suffers.

This can apply to a number of players on the Nats, but I’m going to go with Juan Soto. He’s already exceeded expectations all season long, and helped keep the team afloat. They probably wouldn’t be within shouting distance of the postseason without the young phenom.

If Soto maintains his abnormally strong play while the rest of the team gets it going, the ceiling on this team is higher than any in the National League besides maybe the Dodgers and Cubs. If not, then they can still be okay, but probably not good enough.

Cam Ellis: Stephen Strasburg

Michaela Johnson: Daniel Murphy
Since returning from injury he’s been solid, batting .324 in July. Davey Martinez has good discretion when it comes to resting vs. playing guys coming off injury, and I foresee a strong comeback for Murphy.

Tyler Byrum: Bryce Harper
This is Harper’s team and it always will be with him on the roster. Yes, that .214 batting average is not going to win him a pennant, but Harper is so much more to this team. The 2018 Home Run Derby champion has to bring the fire to the Nationals night-in and night-out, whether or not he is able to get hits on the board. 

Some people want to question his leadership ability (we’re not going to touch that topic), but he needs to inspire his guys in the clubhouse.

Show us the Harper that we saw at the derby, even with a poor batting average, and we’ll see a different team out on the field in the second half.

Will the Nationals make the playoffs?

Ryan Wormeli: Yes
I’m actually very on the fence about this question. I’m going to say yes, but it’s like 51-49. I just am too impressed with the Braves and Phillies, and the latter especially seems keen on making an aggressive move at the trade deadline.

Cam Ellis: Yes
Yes, BUT it'll be the wild card game at Nats Park and extremely stressful.

Michaela Johnson: Yes
If I was making a call based on what we’ve seen in the first half, obviously not. But I have high expectations for the second half based on a Harper resurgence and Murph recovery, so I’m going to say yes.

Tyler Byrum: Yes
Yes. There is too much talent on this roster for them not to. With Strasburg coming back it will be more than just Scherzer dealing out there. The Philadelphia Phillies should cool down at some point too and it will be a two-headed race between the Nats and the Atlanta Braves for the division.

More likely scenario: Bryce Harper is traded at the deadline OR he signs a long-term extension in D.C.

Ryan Wormeli:
I figure everyone will say he signs a long-term extension, and I’m not going to swim against the current here. It’s highly, highly unlikely that he’s traded at the deadline, but given the national conversation surrounding his future in the nation’s capital, I thought it was at least worth asking.

Cam Ellis:
Bryce signs an extension this offseason. That's my prediction

Michaela Johnson:
He signs an extension, based solely on this quote.

Tyler Byrum:
Signs extension. There is no way the Nationals will trade the leader of the team and the guy that just won the Home Run Derby on his own field. Sure it is fun to debate but that is the last thing that this clubhouse needs at this moment. 

On Monday night he showed his power and just why he is worth the lucrative extension.

However, trading Harper would be a typical case of #DCSports.

Who will lead the Nationals in batting average in the second half?

Ryan Wormeli: Daniel Murphy 
If he was never hurt entering the season, he could very well have been the betting favorite to lead the team in average all season long. He’s far enough removed from the Disabled List at this point to feel comfortable taking a shot on his pure hitting talent.

Cam Ellis: Anthony Rendon

Michaela Johnson: Juan Soto

Tyler Byrum: Trea Turner
He is due for a turnaround and none of the pressure is on him. There might also be some extra juice after his All-Star team snubbing. 

Biggest/most important trade deadline acquisition

Ryan Wormeli: JT Realmuto
Going to go out on a limb here and say the Nats in a bit of a panic move but one that’s completely defensible, do what it takes to pry the All-Star catcher away from the woeful Marlins.

Cam Ellis: Matt Harvey 
Another starting pitcher. The Dark Knight rises. 

Michaela Johnson:
*fingers crossed* Starting pitching.

Tyler: Manny Machado
This is a no-brainer. Once written off a decimated by injury, the Los Angeles Dodgers are back to being a World Series contender once again. Sitting at the top of the division, with no one in the National League pulling away, Machado will put the Dodgers back as the team to chance.