The Washington Nationals Bullpen may be their Achilles Heel

Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest question mark in the off-season for the Washington Nationals was thought to be who would be the closer.  However the entire bullpen appears to be a real problem for the defending Eastern Division Champions.

If the first seven games of the season have shown us anything it is that Washington Nationals bullpen is potentially a real weakness.  While the starting rotation looks good if not excellent, the bullpen has been at best ineffective and honestly just plain bad. Through seven games the Nationals Bullpen has surrendered a total of 18 earned runs in 24 1/3 innings for an ERA of 6.66.  The average ERA for the ten bullpens that made the postseason in 2016 was 3.64.  Only two teams, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers made the postseason with a bullpen ERA over 4.00.

Most troubling is the stable of left-handers the Nationals have assembled. The Washington Nationals Bullpen Includes three lefties in 2017. The southpaws are Oliver Perez (11.57), Sammy Solis (9.00), and newcomer Enny Romero (11.57).  These three left-handers have given up 9 earned runs in 7 2/3 innings of work for a combined ERA of 10.58.  The trio has surrendered 15 hits and 3 walks as well for a combined WHIP of 2.34.  More troubling than the early season stats is the eye test.  Hitters do not look uncomfortable against any of the lefties in the Washington Nationals Bullpen.

The right-handers in the Washington Nationals Bullpen are Matt Albers, Joe Blanton, Koda Glover, Shawn Kelly and Blake Treinen. The last three are closer options with Blake Treinen named as the current closer. In the first seven games, the right handed relievers have pitched a total of 16 2/3 innings while giving up 9 earned runs for a 5.67 ERA. As the closer, Treinen has 3 saves but an 8.10 ERA and a 1.80 WHIP. Monday, Shawn Kelly served as the designated closer and gave up 2 hits including a home run when the Nationals scored 7 runs in the bottom of the 8th to turn 2 run lead into a 9 run lead.

The Quest for a Closer

Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Nationals tried but failed to re-sign Mark Melancon. Melancon turned down a four year deal with the Nationals for something less than $60 million and signed with the San Francisco Giants. Then the Nats pursued Kenley Janson but he was asking more than Washington was willing to pay. Finally they tried to get David Robertson from the Chicago White Sox as part of the Adam Eaton deal.

Washington then decided that they had a closer internally. Spring Training was an open competition between Glover, Kelly and Treinen and just prior to Opening Day, Manager Dusty Baker announced that Treinen had won the job.The problem is that none of the closer candidates has any major league experience at closer. Treinen finished 2016 with excellent stats, 2.28ERA/1.22WHIP but he was only 1 for 3 in save opportunities. Blake has incredible movement on his hard sinker, but he struggles with command and with closing out innings. Many times in 2016 he would retire the first two hitters in an inning and then seemingly lose focus and command.

Shawn Kelly has the mental makeup for a closer but he has had two Tommy John surgeries and runs the risk of injury if overused. Glover was able to blow away hitters with his upper nineties fastball in the minors but doesn’t yet have the instant command necessary for a Major League closer.

Without a settled back end of the bullpen it is impossible for Dusty Baker to get his bullpen lined up. Matt Albers showed some promise yesterday but his role is not settled. Joe Blanton has had one rough outing and one good outing. His veteran presence will hopefully help stabilize the Washington Nationals Bullpen.

Trading Valuable Assets

Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of the Adam Eaton trade, the Nationals gave up three strong pitching prospects in Lucas Giolito, Dane Dunning, and Reynaldo Lopez.  Giolito was considered Washington’s top pitching prospect, spending much of 2016 on the Major League roster. He pitched to a disappointing 6.75 ERA and seemed to have lost some speed on his fastball.

Lopez proved to be a valuable asset out of the bullpen in 2016. Reynaldo began as a starter when he was called up in 2016 but was moved to the bullpen down the stretch. He finished the year with a 4.91 ERA while striking out 42 batters in 44 innings. Lopez has electric stuff and was the late season bridge to Kelly and Melancon. Dane Dunning was the Washington Nationals second1st Round Draft Pick in the 2016 Draft. Dunning was slotted as a starter and his inclusion in the Eaton deal was hoped to entice the White Sox to part with Robertson.

In another trade that has weakened the Washington Nationals Bullpen for 2017 the Nationals traded a powerful left handed reliever in Felipe Rivero to Pittsburgh for Mark Melancon. Melancon ended up being a second half rental for the Washington Nationals in 2016. While with the Nats,  Rivero struggled at times but he was always an uncomfortable at bat for left handed hitters.  Before being traded he had a 4.94 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 49 2/3 innings. In Pittsburgh in 2016 Rivero pitched to a 3.29 ERA and in four games in 2017 he is yet to allow a run with a WHIP of 0.50. His arm would have been a real boost to the Washington Nationals Bullpen.

Troubling Early Results in the Washington Nationals Bullpen

Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Its only been six games, but the early results are troubling. The left handers are especially concerning in that their historical splits are balanced versus righties and lefties  Enny Romero is the only left handed power arm and his command is extremely erratic. The Nationals traded minor league pitcher Jeffrey Rosa to the Tampa Bay Rays in February of 2017 to obtain Romero.  With Tampa Bay Romero had a 5.27 ERA over three years. He impressed in this year’s World Baseball Classic pitching for the Dominican Republic with an average fastball of 98.5 mph.  But with the Nationals his control has been poor and hitters sitting on his Heater.

Oliver Perez had a great stretch of effective pitching from 2012 to the first half of 2015 but since has been less than adequate. At age 38 it is unlikely that he will return to form but the Washington Nationals are hoping he will. Sammy Solis came through the Nationals system as a starter and 2016 was his introduction to the bullpen. As a starter he was a control pitcher who relied on location and movement. As a reliever he I said being asked to be a shut down option against left handed batters. The mentality is totally different and will take time.

The Nationals have a powerful lineup, adequate defense and excellent starting pitching. But the Washington National’s Bullpen will be their downfall if things don’t change either through new arms or new roles. Quality and consistent bullpen work is a requirement of a team with aspirations of a championship. Washington may have the pieces necessary to complete the puzzle but putting the pieces in place will be the key.

If the pattern does not come together in time, just like Achilles, the Washington Nationals may ultimately fail in their ultimate mission.  Only time will tell.

This article originally appeared on