As relievers begin to move, history suggests the Nationals should bid with caution

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/nationals-journal/wp/2017/12/05/as
BYBy Chelsea Janes
December 5
Shawn Kelley had a masterful 2016 season, but struggled mightily in 2017. (Julie Jacobson/AP)
Shawn Kelley had a masterful 2016 season, but struggled mightily in 2017. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

The run on free agent relievers might have begun Monday, when the Rangers reportedly agreed to a multiyear deal with left-hander Mike Minor, who will actually be a starter for them, but who’s counting? Minor began the winter as one of the more enticing left-handed relievers available, and is as good a candidate as any to be this year’s first mover — the man who signs and sets the relief market ablaze as teams scramble to secure the always scarce supply of well-regarded relievers. The Nationals are in the market for a few reliable relievers, too. As their well-documented bullpen history would indicate, they almost always are.

Over the past three offseasons, the Nationals signed Casey Janssen, Yusmeiro Petit, Oliver Perez, Shawn Kelley and Joe Blanton. Janssen flamed out. Petit struggled with limited appearances before bouncing back with the Angels this season. Perez was consistent, but not consistently dominant. Kelley provided a year of sparkling setup work before succumbing to injuries in 2017. Blanton simply never found his way.

This year’s free agent class contains several relievers similar to those the Nationals have signed to little avail over the last three seasons. From the consensus prize of this class, Brandon Morrow, to 2017 National League comeback player of the year Greg Holland, to familiar Brandon Kintzler, the Nationals have a variety of options from which to pluck a few proven middle or back-end (and likely right-handed) relievers.

But the Nationals simply have not had much luck securing relievers through free agency — at least not on major league deals. Since Mike Rizzo took over as general manager before the 2010 season, the Nationals have signed 11 free agent relievers to major league deals, and received a combined Wins Above Replacement of 2.1 from them during their Nationals tenures. One can debate the merits of WAR when it comes to pitchers, but that is for another boring winter day. Here, WAR provides a baseline to compare exactly how much more the Nationals are getting out of relievers they sign to major league deals than they are from those they could get for the minimum. The answer, in their case, is not much.

During Rizzo’s tenure, the Nationals have seen more than a dozen relievers they signed to minor league deals and invited to spring training turn into significant contributors on the major league club. Those pitchers have accumulated a WAR of 2.4 during the same time, helped a great deal by the recently strong seasons compiled by Matt Belisle in 2016 and Matt Albers in 2017. Over the last three seasons, the Nationals have gotten -.2 WAR from free agent relievers they signed to major league deals, and .2 WAR from those signed to minor league deals and invited to spring training.

A few tenths of a win, over a few measly seasons, is hardly enough to draw substantive conclusions about Rizzo and his staff’s ability to evaluate the free agent relief market. Injuries contributed to the drop-offs from Kelley and Blanton. Perez was never supposed to be a back-end, shutdown type. But what does withstand scrutiny is the notion that the Nationals have not had unqualified success with free agent relievers, and have often found major bullpen contributors on the clearance rack, where they select a few handfuls of veteran relievers and hope one or two stick each spring.

Unlike years past, when the Nationals needed a closer and setup man and near-total reconfiguration of their troubled bullpen, they enter this offseason needing only to supplement. Sean Doolittle is a bona fide closer. Ryan Madson is a legitimate setup man, though his age does raise durability concerns. Certainly, the Nationals could use another shutdown type at the back end, but they are not desperate. Rizzo said they are happy with their corps of left-handers, which will consist of Sammy Solis, Enny Romero and Matt Grace should Perez sign elsewhere. In other words, the Nationals need a few reliable right-handers to provide middle relief — the kind of pitcher they have had as much success finding cheaply as they have in more heralded free agents.

The Nationals seem certain to ask about Holland, who they pursued last season, Kintzler, who they acquired last season, and numerous other veterans like them. But their history begs skepticism about these relievers and requires withholding judgment on any signing or non-signing. The free agent relief market is an unpredictable place, and the Nationals have not been perfect in identifying its gems. Fortunately, they have found a few cost-efficient diamonds in the rough along the way.

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