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Nats bullpen could be just fine if they trade Papelbon


Nats bullpen could be just fine if they trade Papelbon

The Nationals still have time to make additions and tweak their roster ahead of 2016 spring training, and Opening Day is over two months away. But as of Feb. 1, there remain questions in the backend of their bullpen.

The big one is whether Jonathan Papelbon will be on the team when pitchers and catchers report to Viera, Fla. in less than three weeks. What seemed last fall like an obvious decision for the Nationals, to cut bait and get rid of him, now doesn't carry the same certainty. Papelbon still remains on the roster, as hard as it is for some to believe.

Even with Papelbon, who is currently set to be their closer, it is not clear who will pitch the eighth inning. And if they dispatch Papelbon, they will need to figure out who pitches the ninth, as well. In today's game, with such an increased emphasis on the bullpen (see Royals in 2014 and 2015), it would seem unwise to enter a season without a proven setup man and closer.

The Nationals, however, could be just fine even without Papelbon. Sure, another experienced reliever would help to add depth. That could be through a free agent signing, a trade, or if Bronson Arroyo somehow makes the rotation out of spring and bumps Tanner Roark back to the bullpen.

If the Nationals trade Papelbon after already sending Drew Storen to Toronto, the eighth and ninth inning would potentially go to some combination of Felipe Rivero, Trevor Gott, Blake Treinen, Shawn Kelley and Yusmeiro Petit.  

That may scare some Nats fans, but that group does have potential. Kelley and Petit are both proven veterans who could competently pitch the seventh or eighth inning. Rivero, Gott and Treinen each offer high ceilings as young, hard-throwing pitchers.

Rivero would seem to be the safest bet of those three and some would argue should get a shot at either the eighth or ninth inning in 2016. He was very good as a rookie with a 2.79 ERA in 49 appearances and is a scary sight for opposing hitters with a high-90s fastball from the left side.

Most importantly, however, is that it's not entirely necessary to have a proven closer entering a season. In almost every year there are quality late-inning relievers to be had in mid-summer trades. One could argue it is one of the most attainable positions to fill midseason among those that are considered important.

If you need an elite center fielder midseason, or a top shelf starting pitcher, those are both hard to find and expensive to acquire. Every year, however, there is a very good reliever on a very bad team available for trade.

Last year the Mets got Tyler Clippard in a July trade for pitcher Casey Meisner, who has solid minors numbers but is nowhere to be found on's top 100 prospect list. In 2014, the Orioles traded for lefty Andrew Miller and he was a huge factor in their run to the ALCS. If Eduardo Rodriguez becomes an ace in Boston, it will hurt, but Miller was lights out during his time in Baltimore.

In July of 2013, the O's got Francisco Rodriguez, the Indians traded for Marc Rzepczynski and the Dodgers acquired Carlos Marmol. K-Rod left Milwaukee for Baltimore with a 1.09 ERA in 25 appearances, while both Rzepczynski and Marmol overcame early season struggles to dominate with their new teams.

In 2012, the Cardinals scooped Edward Mujica from the Marlins. He went on to hold a 1.03 ERA in 29 regular season appearances and then post a 2.35 ERA in nine playoff outings as the Cards pushed the Giants to seven games in the NLCS.

The Nationals have been on both sides of this equation. In 2010, as they were headed towards another last-place finish, they shipped All-Star closer Matt Capps to the Minnesota Twins. The Twins were charging towards an AL Central title and thought Capps was the missing piece. They gave up Wilson Ramos to get him, but Capps pitched very well in the second half of that season.

This past season it was the Nationals who were seeking relief help as the trade deadline approached. They sent pitching prospect Nick Pivetta - another who did not make the top 100 - to Philly for a six-time All-Star and former World Series champion who brought with him a 1.59 ERA in 37 appearances. His name? Jonathan Edward Papelbon. 

That may rank among the worst roster decisions made in this town by any team in recent years, up there with the Redskins signing Albert Haynesworth and the Wizards drafting Jan Vesely sixth overall. But the point still stands: if you need a late-inning reliever, you can usually get them after the season begins and often times for not that much.

Here's a theory: setup men and closers just aren't that valuable to rebuilding teams. What's the point in having a dominant closer if your team can't provide him save opportunities to truly maximize his value? If closers were that valuable during the rebuilding process, then Craig Kimbrel would still be on the Braves and Aroldis Chapman would still be in Cincinatti.

There are 19 days until the Nats' first workout in Viera for pitchers and catchers. Will Papelbon be there? We still don't know, but if he is gone the Nationals will still have plenty of time to find his replacement, whether from within or in a trade with another team.

[RELATED: Giolito leads four Nats on's top 100 prospects list]

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Breaking down Bryce Harper's early years of stardom with the Nationals


Breaking down Bryce Harper's early years of stardom with the Nationals

We’ve written plenty of times about the potential end of Bryce Harper’s Nationals career. We’ve examined what were maybe his final days at Nationals Park, started discussing where he might end up, and taken a look at the journey that brought us to this point.

Over the course of a few posts, we’re going to take a deeper look at some of the highlights of the last half-decade in Nats history through the lens of Harper. We’ll be breaking this up into a three-act series, but who knows? If he ends up re-signing in D.C., we may end up looking back on 2012-18 altogether as just the first act of a storied career in the nation’s capital.

Whether or not he comes back to Washington, it’s clear that we’re entering a new era in both D.C. baseball and Harper’s career, so it’s a natural point to take a step at and review where we’ve come from so far.

Act I (2012-2014)

Really, the story of Bryce Harper dates back to 2010, the year in which he was drafted (or possibly back to 2009, the year of his notorious Sports Illustrated cover story). 2010 was a year of endless excitement and optimism for the future of Nationals baseball, with the franchise enjoying the second of their back-to-back top overall draft picks.

In just about the most fortunate setup in draft history, Washington’s first two No. 1 picks came in 2009 and 2010, which happens to be the two draft classes headlined by the most hyped prospects entering the league in recent memory. 2009 brought the future ace in Stephen Strasburg, and 2010 brought the future face of the sport in Harper.

The Debut

After continuing his rise to fame through the minors, Harper finally made his big-league debut in April of 2012 at the tender age of 19. The recent success of Juan Soto may lead some fans to believe it’s normal for uber prospects to reach the majors this quickly, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most prospects are still in college or the lower levels of a team’s farm system at the age of 19, but Harper wasn’t most prospects.

Based purely on the crazy hype surrounding Harper, it’d be tough to exclude his Major League debut -- the Nats played the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 28, 2012 -- among the early highlights of his career. He showed off a lot of the skills we’d see over the next six years. There was his rocket arm, his flair for the dramatic, his pure strength and his steely demeanor in the face of overwhelming pressure.

What made his debut game even more special was that Strasburg was starting for the Nats. The team lost to the Dodgers in extra innings, but in one glorious evening, fans could see the future taking place right before their eyes.

The All-Star

The next major milestone for Harper was making the All-Star Game, which he did somewhat controversially in that magical 2012 season. Harper became the third teenage All-Star ever, and the first one to do so as a position player.

He entered the game as a reserve, and in two at-bats, walked and struck out. He had very little impact on the game itself but was still one of the biggest stories at an event made for baseball’s biggest stars.

The Playoffs

There were other highlights during his rookie season, of course, as the team experienced its first success since returning to Washington. The Nats won 98 games that year to take the NL East, and Harper was helping lead the charge. The NLDS that year pitted the Nats against the 88-win St. Louis Cardinals, and the back-and-forth series went the full five games.

Harper notably struggled during his first exposure to October baseball, hitting just 3-for-23. He struck out eight times, which the most between both teams. The highlight, however, was a Game 5 home run off Adam Wainwright. Harper had already tripled in the Nats’ three-run first inning, and he led off the third with a solo blast to extend the lead to 4-0. At the time, it felt like the team’s youngest superstar cemented a franchise-altering win.

This is the part where Nats fans yell at me for reminding them of what came next.

Drew Storen fell apart in the ninth inning, the Cardinals completed the comeback victory, and the Nats were eliminated from the playoffs. Harper did get an at-bat in the 9th inning and struck out swinging. Say what you want, but he wasn’t going to go down without a fight.

The Recognition

Harper deservedly won the National League Rookie of the Year that season, and looking back, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t that close to unanimous (his stiffest competition came from Wade Miley and Todd Frazier). His 5.2 WAR and 57 extra-base hits both represented modern era records for a teenage hitter, and Harper even found himself getting down-ballot MVP votes (he finished 30th).

It was a historic season, and Harper has the accolades to show for it. The future was bright.

The Follow Up

Bryce Harper’s 2013 season didn’t go as well as 2012 for a litany of reasons. The team surrounding him was worse, failing to follow up 2012 with another postseason run. He struggled with injuries, including missing time after crashing into an outfield wall that May. It was a signature aggressive Harper play, going all-out in an attempt to help the team, but ended up being costly. He only ended up playing in 118 games and hitting 20 home runs. He was still an All-Star, but that was partially aided by his fame and stature.

That said, he kicked off the 2013 in incredible fashion, and that Opening Day stands out as his clearest highlight from the entire season. Harper didn’t just become the fourth-youngest player to ever homer on Opening Day (trailing names like Ken Griffey, Jr. and Robin Yount), but he ended up hitting home runs in his first two plate appearances. He was the first player to do so in franchise history and did it at the prodigious age of 20.

His powerful start to the year sent fans into a frenzy, and he gave them a curtain call four innings into the new season. The success wouldn’t last throughout the summer, but it was a wild start and is one of the lasting highlights from the early years of Harper’s career.

The Postseason Return

The 2014 regular season would be a forgettable one for Harper. Thanks to a thumb injury he suffered running the bases, Harper set a career-low in games played with exactly 100. The time missed contributed to a third straight season with fewer home runs than the last, but his rate stats suffered as well. He had the lowest slugging percentage and OPS of his career, and it remains the only season in which he wasn’t named to the National League All-Star team.

For his regular season struggles, however, Harper experienced much more success in his second postseason. The Nats bounced back from a down 2013 team, beating up on a weak division and winning 96 games to lead the National League. They ended up facing another inferior NLDS opponent in the San Francisco Giants, and the end result was the same as in 2012.

The Giants may have won the series thanks to a dominant performance by their pitching staff (the Nats batted .164 as a team), but Harper held his own this time around. In what still stands out to this day as his strongest postseason performance, Harper had a slash line of .294/.368/.882, buoyed by his three home runs in four games. The 1.251 OPS represents by far a career-high, and his three home runs were 75 percent of the team’s total in the series.

He went 0-for-7 in the 18-inning Game 2 marathon, but essentially was the entire Washington offense in Games 1, 3 and 4. He even launched a ball into the third deck at Nats Park in Game 1. It was a titanic blast that won’t soon be forgotten.

The clear highlight, however, came in Game 4. The Nats fell behind 2-0 early, but Harper got them on the board with a fifth-inning double. Trailing 2-1, he came to bat in the seventh and blasted his third home run of the series to tie the game. The Nats were eight outs from elimination, and Harper had saved them.

Of course, once again, the bullpen would go on to lose the game for the Nats and end their season. Harper again had a chance in a do-or-die 9th inning, and this time, the Giants learned their lesson and walked him. His team lost, but the legend of Bryce Harper was cemented.


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Ex-Oriole Manny Machado homers off ex-National Gio Gonzalez in NLCS Game 1

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Ex-Oriole Manny Machado homers off ex-National Gio Gonzalez in NLCS Game 1

Sure, the Nationals and Orioles didn't make the playoffs, but that didn't stop a "Battle of the Beltways" moment from breaking out during NLCS Game 1.

Ex-National Gio Gonzalez started the game for the Brewers. In the second inning, ex-Oriole Manny Machado stepped to the plate for the Dodgers.

Here's what happened next:

If you squint, you can imagine the ball flying into the Nationals Park bullpen or the Camden Yards bleachers. 

And in case you're wondering, we have indeed entered the Twilight Zone.