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Free-agent market for relievers is thin

Nov 13, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT

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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…

DARREN O’DAY
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?

RYAN MADSON
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).

TYLER CLIPPARD
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?

JOAKIM SORIA
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.

ANTONIO BASTARDO
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.

MARK LOWE
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.

SHAWN KELLEY
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.

FERNANDO RODNEY
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?

CHAD QUALLS
He’s been in 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.

  1. DaveB - Nov 13, 2015 at 8:09 AM

    No listing for Matt Thornton? … I guess Mark probably has insight that the Nats aren’t looking to try to bring him back, but he seemed solid in his role even as he ages, so seems as good a FA candidate as some of those listed.

    • Kenz aFan - Nov 13, 2015 at 11:09 AM

      I agree, that Matt Thornton would not be a bad resign… IMO, the list is also a few good relievers short.

      Here are twothat could be added to the list.

      Lefty Tony Sipp, 1.99 ERA, 62K in 54.1 innings, with a WHIP of 1.031
      Righty Carlos Villanueva, 2.95 ERA, 55K in 61 innings, with a WHIP of 1.164

  2. TimDz - Nov 13, 2015 at 9:04 AM

    Any insights on possible trade targets? Anyone?

    • alexva6 - Nov 13, 2015 at 9:27 AM

      bullpen arms are usually cheap and under team control. it is tough to pry them away.

      I am hoping for some success from within, relying on better usage and coaching. and maybe a trade for Chapman.

      • jeffreycbullock - Nov 13, 2015 at 12:34 PM

        I was all for trading for Chapman, including a straight up swap with Strasburg – in fact, I still am if Cincinnati tosses someone worthwhile into the deal.

      • tcostant - Nov 13, 2015 at 3:29 PM

        The Reds don’t want a FA to be, think big time prospects.

    • virginiascopist - Nov 13, 2015 at 9:28 AM

      Since the Braves seem to be selling everything that isn’t nailed down, maybe Jason Grilli, Arodys Vizcaino or Shae Simmons. Simmons is coming off of TJS (last February) — but then, again, who on the Braves’ staff isn’t? That’s why they keep stockpiling young pitching.

      I would say target the Padres, but after what Rizzo did last off-season, I don’t think Preller would accept any phone call that didn’t start with, “.. we’ll give you back Turner and Ross for…”

  3. Doc - Nov 13, 2015 at 9:42 AM

    Wad about our farm?

    Rivero wasn’t on the bullpen radar this time last year, and he wasn’t being groomed to be a relief pitcher. How about putting A.J. Cole into the pen???

  4. tcostant - Nov 13, 2015 at 10:17 AM

    This article should have include who requires a draft pick (because of a QO) to sign him.

    • natsjackinfl - Nov 13, 2015 at 10:40 AM

      None of the listed relievers received a qualifying offer.

      • tcostant - Nov 13, 2015 at 11:20 AM

        Good to know! Thanks.

      • Doc - Nov 13, 2015 at 12:19 PM

        That shows how little value there is for a relief pitcher.

  5. fpa4356 - Nov 13, 2015 at 10:55 AM

    It stands to reason that the Nats’ shortfall of outfielders and othe position players in its minors system may be a consequence of Rizzo’s focus on pitching prospects. If so, then the Nats would seem to be built to fill its bullpen for the most part from within. Maybe we should be a bit more patient with some of the young guys and let’s give them a chance to blossom into valuable contributors, thus allowing the FO to use available $$ to obtain the left-handed hitting that the internal system lacks.

  6. langleyclub - Nov 13, 2015 at 12:04 PM

    I know that the Nats like O’Day, but a 4 year deal for $32 million would be very risky for a 33 year-old pitcher with limited velocity.

    The best bullpens in baseball are not built via high priced FA signees. The Cardinals bullpen has been great for years, and its filled with players that the Card developed and cast-offs from other organizations; same with the Royals. Just not confident if the Nats overspend for O’day, Bastardo and Rodney, if the bullpen would be that much better. Wonder if any of the Nats organizational starters project to be effective as relievers.

    • Doc - Nov 13, 2015 at 12:25 PM

      Building a relief corps like the Cards is where it’s at, IMHO.

      Big bucks for a relief pitcher, unless his name is Chapman, is a big fat waste of moolah. And even Chapman will probably have a limited shelf life. Best to do it from the organization. The Nats should have lots of organizational candidates.

      • virginiascopist - Nov 13, 2015 at 12:55 PM

        I am also in favor of building a bullpen mostly with in-house resources, although I’m certain Rizzo will investigate the available free agents and possible trade opportunities. Chapman would be nice, and shelf life wouldn’t really matter since we would only have him for a year (unless you figure he has reached his expiration date, as it appears maybe Clippard has) and, hopefully, we would be able to make him a QO next year, but he will be very expensive and we’d have to bid against a lot of other teams, just like with O’Day.

      • unkyd59 - Nov 13, 2015 at 1:14 PM

        It’s hard to imagine a relief pitcher getting a QO… That’d be over $16 mil next year…. Right? How many relievers make $16 mil?

      • tcostant - Nov 13, 2015 at 3:27 PM

        The Yankees closer in 2014 got a QO, declined it and signed elsewhere for a bag a money with dollar signs on it.

    • jeffreycbullock - Nov 13, 2015 at 12:36 PM

      Add to that the fact that O’Day is a submariner and they eventually start getting lit up by lefties.

  7. Serious Jammage - Nov 13, 2015 at 2:46 PM

    Our bullpen will be irrelevant, because Dusty Baker will never use it. Just my opinion.

    • letswin3 - Nov 13, 2015 at 4:57 PM

      Although that’s pretty funny, I hope he’s more fully moved away from overusing starters … I think I read that he improved as the Red’s skipper, so there’s that.

  8. TimDz - Nov 13, 2015 at 2:56 PM

    Matt Weiters accepted the QO from the Angel-o’s

    • unkyd59 - Nov 13, 2015 at 3:12 PM

      Yes… Rasmus and Weiters have broken the ice! I wonder what effect this will have on the process, next year….

      • unkyd59 - Nov 13, 2015 at 3:14 PM

        Is the QO a onetime deal? That is to say, are Rasmus and Weiters unfettered, as it were, next postseason…?

      • tcostant - Nov 13, 2015 at 3:31 PM

        Nope – they can get a QO next year too…

      • langleyclub - Nov 13, 2015 at 3:39 PM

        Weiters and Rasmus now have one year agreements with their respective teams. Neither can be traded until June. Not sure if the O’s and Astros can offer QO’s again next year or not. The surprising thing about Weiters’ acceptance of the QO is that Borras is his agent; so, Boras must have felt that despite the yearly increases in salaries, Weiters wasn’t going to do better than 15 million in 2015. Good news for the O’s is that they have a solid catcher in 2016; the bad news is that they just used up $15 million in available payroll on an injury-prone catcher that has been just OK over the past few years: .267/.319/.422. This limits the cast o try to re-sign Chris Davis or O’Day.

      • Section 222 - Nov 13, 2015 at 4:23 PM

        The Astros and the O’s can make Q.O.s to Rasmus and Weiters next year, as both will become free agents. The repeated QOs is the thing that Boras has said he doesn’t like about the system. The player never gets to go out on the open market without a draft choice attached to him, making it more expensive for another team to sign him to a multi-year deal.

        That certainly is a problem with someone like Greinke or Justin Upton, but in the case of Rasmus, I would guess neither would get a QO next year unless they have extraordinarily good years. Neither is probably worth $15.8 million. I think both teams thought their player would decline the offer and yield a draft choice. They’ll think long and hard about making that mistake again next year.

  9. langleyclub - Nov 13, 2015 at 4:27 PM

    CBS Sports is reporting the Ian Desmond declined the QO.

    • letswin3 - Nov 13, 2015 at 4:59 PM

      Whew …

      • Doc - Nov 13, 2015 at 5:15 PM

        Whew is right!

        An even bigger ‘whew’ was when Desi turned down the $100 million. That left $100 million to put towards Harps offer.

    • natsfan1a - Nov 13, 2015 at 5:12 PM

      Well, I’m bummed about it, so there. I guess I was in denial about Desi leaving. Will miss him.

      • natsfan1a - Nov 13, 2015 at 5:13 PM

        He was a standup guy, and I wish nothing but the best for him. Hope he doesn’t go to the Mets, though. Icky.

  10. Section 222 - Nov 13, 2015 at 4:43 PM

    Shawn Kelley is an interesting name. I didn’t realize he was already a F.A. He was injured at the end of the year thought. Could be risky a la Janssen/Carpenter.

  11. Eugene in Oregon - Nov 13, 2015 at 4:51 PM

    222 (@ 4:23) wrote: “They’ll think long and hard about making that mistake again next year.”

    Agree fully — and it won’t just be the Astros and the O’s who rethink things. In past offseasons, I’ve argued that once a player accepts a QO the whole market will change. Especially since one of the two (so far) was a Scott Boras client. Now that the $ value is in the upper teens — it’s moving well ahead of inflation — the equation shifts. And seeing what happened to Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew a couple of years ago also, I believe, generated a change in agents’ calculations (perhaps esp. for Mr. Boras). My prediction is that next year you won’t see any of the marginal/questionabe offers. A few players, of course, will continue to get the QOs (e.g., Stephen Strasburg). But teams are going to be a lot more conservative. And that, in turn, may also affect the mid-season trade market next year.

    • Section 222 - Nov 13, 2015 at 5:56 PM

      I think you’re exactly right Eugene. Lots of people argued before QOs were announced this year that no one would ever take it. They even said there was pressure from other players not to. I never bought into that and figured it was only a matter of time before the number got high enough and teams got greedy enough to give them to marginal players. For that reason, I never thought Span or Fister would get the QO once their seasons went down the tubes because Rizzo wouldn’t want them at that price. Rizzo made the right decision not to give it to them, or we’d be out almost $32 million for two questionable players.

      • abqnatsfan - Nov 14, 2015 at 2:54 PM

        Agreed. Glad we only gave the two QO’s. The others would have accepted and handcuffed the Nats.

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