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Can We Get Some Relief?

An examination of the Nats' homegrown bullpen development struggles.

Owen Ranger profile image
by Owen Ranger
Can We Get Some Relief?
Drew Storen | © Tommy Gilligan  – USA TODAY NETWORK

The Washington Nationals, regardless of whether or not they have been good, have NEVER had the kind of bullpen that inspired complete confidence in late and close situations. The Nationals have never hung out a shingle along the lines of the law firm of Herrera, Davis, and Holland, the trio that iced so many games for the Kansas City Royals in 2014 and 2015 (Herrera and Holland both later became Nats for a time). No, it felt like in the Nats’ years of contention Mike Rizzo was always scrambling to find multiple high-leverage arms in July, and in their recent years of irrelevance, no other team has wanted to trade for any of their bullpen corps.

Because teams generally use twice as many relievers as they have space for in their bullpen at any one time, having some significant percentage of those pitchers be young players with options provides the team with greater roster flexibility. Being young and having options generally increases the odds that the pitcher is homegrown, and yet that does not seem to apply to the Nationals. Much has been made of the Nats’ inability to develop their own starting pitchers (Tanner Roark - acquired as a Double-A flier for the remains of Cristian Guzmán in 2010 - remains the only league-average starter to emerge from Washington’s minor league system since Stephen Strasburg in that same season), but the failure to produce any sizable quantity of even average relievers has been just as harmful to keeping the team competitive for the long term.

High-leverage relievers can be fickle beasts, rarely maintaining their dominance for more than two or three seasons at a time for any number of reasons. And yet, in fifteen years the Nats have developed just one such pitcher who made any serious impact in Washington. For two seasons, 2011 and 2015, Drew Storen was the primary closer, until finally, the Nats broke his confidence by their lack of trust (Rizzo was always looking for someone better come the deadline). He is still the only homegrown reliever to serve in that role for more than a month. Old-head Nats fans can remember Henry Rodríguez regularly clocking triple digits with zero idea as to the baseball’s path toward the general vicinity of home plate. The franchise tried to make Koda Glover a thing for a minute or two until he wrecked himself. And…that is it.

140 distinct men have made five or more relief appearances in a season for the Nationals since 2009, the first year of Mike Rizzo’s tenure as general manager. Of those, just twenty-five (17.8%) were originally drafted or signed by the Nationals as amateur free agents, plus Yunesky Maya, a Cuban exile who signed as an “amateur” free agent a few weeks shy of his twenty-ninth birthday. Four of them (Jason Bergmann, Mike Hinckley, Collin Balester, and the delightfully named Atahualpa Severino, whom I had forgotten was a person before I started researching for this article) were drafted or signed as Montreal Expos, and three others (Craig Stammen, Cole Kimball, and Ross Detwiler) were selected as amateurs in the pre-Rizzo era. Of the twenty-five, only two (Storen and Stammen) appeared in six seasons for the Nationals, one (Matt Grace) wore a curly W in five seasons, and two more (Sammy Solís and Wander Suero) pitched in four seasons. I suppose you could throw Detwiler in there as well since he toggled between the rotation and bullpen during his Washington tenure. That is six relievers who got as far as their arbitration seasons with the team that drafted/signed them in fifteen years.

Not only have the Nationals not developed any closers beyond Storen (one legitimate closer in fifteen years seems not ideal), but they have barely developed any Sueros (who along with Reynaldo López and Jefry Rodríguez represent the entire MLB pitching output of the Nats’ Dominican Academy, which again, looks less than great). For teams operating within any serious budgetary constraints (and the Lerners’ reluctance toward understanding the importance of any serious investment in minor league development certainly qualifies), churning out quality relievers should be an area of focus. They may not always stick, but the return on investment can overflow if done well. Look at the Tampa Bay Rays, one of the cheapest organizations in baseball except when it comes to their development model; every year they pump out so many arms that they casually DFA two or three throughout the summer (and some of them - hi, Joe La Sorsa! - become Nationals).

To be fair, reliever consistency is a contradiction in terms. And the Nationals did identify, in addition to López, the odd Dane Dunning here and there. But each year somewhere between eleven (2014) and twenty-one (2021) pitchers have made those five-plus relief appearances for the Nationals,* a number I chose primarily to remove position player appearances and cameos by otherwise injured guys (like Tanner Rainey at the end of 2023). Shouldn’t more of those be internal players rather than trade acquisitions (Daniel Hudson, Brandon Kintzler, Sean Doolittle, etc.), scrap heap pickups (Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, Hobie Harris, etc.), and free agents (Rafael Soriano, Erasmo Ramírez, Carl Edwards Jr., etc.)?

*Two or more appearances in 2020, not including the two by infielder Brock Holt.

ICYMI: 40 in 40: Hunter Harvey

The divide has gotten worse in recent years. Of the forty different relievers who made five or more appearances in the past three seasons (since the rebuild began in earnest), just six (Austin Voth, Gabe Klobotsits, Jefry Rodríguez, Suero, Amos Willingham, and José A. Ferrer) were homegrown products - and Rodríguez was coming back to the Nats after having been traded to Cleveland in the interim for Yan Gomes. The 2022 season, the first full year of the rebuild, featured zero appearances by new internal relievers (Voth was the only homegrown product in the bullpen that year- out of twenty guys! - and we know how that turned out). The organization has not put itself in a position where they can even throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks.

ICYMI: 40 in 40: Jose A. Ferrer

Most relievers are failed starters, either because they lack a good enough third pitch to get major league batters out more than once in a game, do not possess the durability to go deep into games every five days, or both. This usually happens to pitchers as they progress through the minor leagues. Storen is the rare exception as someone who was exclusively a reliever as an amateur and drafted high (although that was in large part because of the franchise’s desire to make sure they signed Strasburg in that same draft).

Historically the Nats have been extremely reluctant to have pitchers  transition from the rotation to the bullpen until it is too late. The quintessential example of this is Joan Adon, who has emphatically demonstrated for three years that he cannot consistently get hitters out a second time through the order (let alone a third), but could probably have some success as a one- or two-inning reliever with his hard fastball and big curve. Unfortunately, Adon is now down to his final year of minor league options, so this is the last opportunity to find out if a new role can work for him in Rochester.* Cole Henry (The Nats Report #16 Prospect) had thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in 2022, the same surgery that effectively ended Strasburg’s career, and yet the Nats are still trying to make him a starting pitcher (even before the surgery Henry managed to pitch a sixth inning just once in his professional career, in his second start for High-A Wilmington in 2021).

*I had thought Adon was in fact out of options when I first wrote this article (they were used on him in 2021, 2022, and 2023, which is typically all a player gets), but perhaps because 2020 didn’t count toward his minor league service time he gets one more?

In addition to dragging their feet on converting starters to relievers, the Nationals have a very poor track record on developing pitchers of any type with command or control (notwithstanding the “I don’t care how fast you throw ball four” signs that were plastered all over the bullpens this spring). Relievers typically have worse command/control than starters, so it follows that if the organization has been unable to develop starters with major league-quality command and control, of course they would be just as unlikely to develop relievers with acceptable command and control.*

*As a reminder, command is the ability to throw the ball where you want to; control is the ability to throw the ball within the strike zone - they are not interchangeable terms.

These issues add up to a thin homegrown relief corps that during their competitive years, the Nationals continually had to supplement via trade, raiding their perennially shallow, top-heavy farm system, thus hurting their long-term prospects of contention. If they are to have a truly successful rebuild without repeating the unprecedented bad stretch that followed the 2012-2019 run, developing more of their own successful, or even simply adequate, major league relievers will be one of the cheapest and simplest fixes they can make. To further illustrate the point, here is a list of every homegrown Nats reliever that pitched five or more times in each season of the Rizzo era (bWAR in parentheses):

2009: Jason Bergmann (-0.1), Mike Hinckley (0.1)
2010: Collin Balester (0.4), Craig Stammen (-0.4), Drew Storen (0.4)
2011: Atahualpa Severino (0.0), Cole Kimball (0.4), Balester (-0.4), Stammen (0.5), Storen (1.5), Ross Detwiler (1.1), Yunesky Maya (-0.2)
2012: Stammen (2.1), Storen (0.9), Detwiler (1.9)
2013: Stammen (1.0), Storen (-0.7)
2014: Aaron Barrett (0.4), Stammen (0.1), Storen (2.5), Detwiler (-0.3)
2015: Barrett (0.0), Stammen (0.3), Storen (0.6), Matt Grace (-0.3), Rafael Martín (-0.3), Sammy Solís (0.0), Taylor Hill (0.1)
2016: Koda Glover (-0.1), Grace (0.1), Martín (0.1), Reynaldo López (-0.2), Solís (1.1)
2017: Glover (-0.1), Grace (0.4), Solís (-0.2)
2018: Austen Williams (0.0), Jefry Rodríguez (-0.4), Glover (0.4), Grace (1.1), Solís (-0.7), Wander Suero (0.7)
2019: Erick Fedde (0.8), Grace (-0.6), Suero (0.5)
2020: Barrett (0.0), Ben Braymer (0.4), Fedde (1.5), Seth Romero (-0.2), Suero (0.6)
2021: Austin Voth (-0.4), Gabe Klobotsits (-0.2), Rodríguez (-0.1), Suero (-1.2)
2022: Voth (-0.8)
2023: Amos Willingham (-0.2), José A. Ferrer (0.0)

If you are scoring at home, that is a cumulative 13.9 bWAR over fifteen seasons courtesy of the homegrown relievers, with almost two-thirds of that coming from Stammen (3.6) and Storen (5.2) - both of whom left the organization eight seasons ago - and most of the rest coming from hybrid starting pitchers who threw more innings than a typical reliever (Detwiler and Fedde). Even given the unreliable nature of relief pitchers, that is pretty slim pickings.

The good news is that this particular issue might improve starting this season. Willingham and Ferrer are both still Nationals, although both have issues to iron out before they can be considered success stories. Zach Brzykcy (The Nats Report #15 Prospect), whom the Nats signed as an undrafted free agent in 2020 out of Virginia Tech, had an outstanding 2022 across the upper three levels of the Nats’ minor league system before needing TJ surgery last spring - he should debut in Washington early this summer, and the ceiling exists for him to become that elusive next internal closer. The conversions of Adon and Henry to the bullpen could still happen. Mitchell Parker (The Nats Report #24 Prospect) should open 2024 in the Rochester rotation but profiles better as a reliever, and is now on the 40-man roster. Matt Cronin was hurt much of last season but could sneak back into the equation. Holden Powell quietly had a solid 2023 and finished the season in Triple-A as well. Alex Troop, Jack Sinclair, Lucas Knowles, Tyler Schoff, Malvin Peña, Reid Schaller, Andrew Alvarez, and Evan Lee are all lurking in the upper minors. Hell, there’s even the possibility that 2018 first-round pick Mason Denaburg is fully healed from the hernia he pitched through last year and can move quickly through the system thanks to some new mechanics and increased velocity.

There is perhaps more (mostly unexciting, but still) reliever depth in the Nats’ system than there has been in several years, and a big step forward towards completing the rebuild should be figuring out which of those pitchers and others have the chance to at least be depth options at the major league level. Let us hope that they turn that corner soon.

Owen Ranger profile image
by Owen Ranger

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