Nov 23, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT
There’s no question about the Nationals’ most-pressing need this winter: bullpen help. And there’s no question about the best-available reliever on the free-agent market: Darren O’Day.
So it shouldn’t come as much surprise that the Nationals have significant interest in O’Day. (ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick went so far Sunday as to say the Nats have joined the Dodgers at the “top of the Darren O’Day pack.”)
And, according to a source familiar with O’Day’s thinking, the veteran right-hander has mutual interest in the Nationals, owing in part to the fact his wife (Elizabeth Prann) is a Washington-based reporter for Fox News Channel. That fact, of course, also makes Baltimore an attractive place for O’Day to stay, but the Orioles to date have offered no evidence they are making a serious attempt to re-sign him.
The real question, though, is whether the Nationals are willing to make the kind of commitment it’s going to take to land the best reliever on the market. O’Day is expected to receive at least a 3-year deal, with many believing he’ll ultimately command a 4-year contract worth anywhere from $28 million to $36 million.
That’s a hefty price, and not only in dollars. A 4-year commitment to any reliever, let alone one who just turned 33, is a risky proposition, and not the kind of thing the Nats have been willing to do in the past.
Yes, they’ve been willing to spend top dollar on experienced closers — Rafael Soriano got $14 million a year, Jonathan Papelbon is scheduled to make $11 million next year — but neither was acquired with more than two seasons of control guaranteed. Are the Nationals suddenly going to double that commitment in years, especially for a setup man?
They just might. Relievers are notoriously a fickle bunch, with few able to maintain a high level of consistency over multiple years. But O’Day might be one who breaks that mold.
In each of his four seasons with the Orioles, O’Day has made at least 60 appearances with an ERA under 2.30 and a WHIP of 1.00 or lower. He’s the only reliever in baseball to do that. And only two others (Craig Kimbrel and Mark Melancon) have done it three times in those four seasons.
An O’Day acquisition would probably increase speculation that the Nationals are going to trade either Papelbon or Drew Storen (or both). Such a move certainly would give Mike Rizzo the flexibility to deal at least one of the other right-handers, even if he wouldn’t get full value at this point.
But it wouldn’t necessarily force Rizzo’s hand. As we’ve seen in the past, he’s perfectly comfortable loading up at one position and trying to assemble one of the deepest talent pools in baseball. It’s what he did last winter with his rotation. And it’s what he did in 2013-14 with a bullpen that featured Soriano, Storen and Tyler Clippard.
There’s certainly some evidence to suggest a dominant bullpen trio can make a huge difference over the course of a season and especially in October — hello, world champion Kansas City Royals — so perhaps the idea of a Storen-O’Day-Papelbon triumvirate is appealing to Rizzo.
If they go that route, though, the Nationals will be spending a whole lot of money on their bullpen. Those three relievers figure to sport a combined 2016 salary in the range of $28 million. That’s not a traditional allocation of financial resources.
Then again, consider what this team’s biggest problem area was this season, and what a difference a dominant 7-8-9 bullpen combo might have made in the NL East race.
If the Nationals are determined to correct that flaw, O’Day might just be the best available piece, even if the price tag makes them just a bit queasy.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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