At first glance, the deal is a no-brainer upgrade for Washington. Even though the Nats entered play Sunday 9 ½ games up in the NL East, it seemed there was no chance of them actually winning a playoff series for the first time ever with the pen as it was. On Saturday, the relief corps nearly blew a 10-0 lead in Cincinnati, allowing seven runs over the final three innings to elevate its ERA to 5.34, highest in the majors. It was merely the latest flare-up for a bullpen that’s been one of the worst in baseball since Opening Day.
By adding Madson and Doolittle, the Nationals get a pair of proven veteran relievers who instantly improve manager Dusty Baker’s bullpen. Since returning from injuries that caused him to miss 2012 through 2014, Madson has been one of the game’s filthier late-inning arms. In 40 games with Oakland this year, the 36-year-old righty posted a 0.79 WHIP that ranked fifth in the American League, and a 4.2 percent walk rate that was fourth lowest in the AL. When healthy, Doolittle — who missed six weeks earlier this season with shoulder problems — has been just as good, if not better. In 23 games with the A’s, the 30-year old southpaw checked in with a 0.65 WHIP, and averaged more than 13 whiffs per nine innings. He’s been death on lefties too: Opposing left-handed batters are 0-for-23 with 12 strikeouts against Doolittle this season.
In other words, Baker’s bullpen is decidedly better today than it was yesterday. Perhaps best of all for the Nationals, the improvement comes without having to sell the farm.
Although Washington’s payroll plumped up with the addition of Madson and Doolittle (combined, they’re owed more than $5 million for the remainder of this season and just over $12 million next year), general manager Mike Rizzo didn’t have to part with outfielder Victor Robles or any of the club’s other most prized prospects. Instead, Oakland received big-league reliever Blake Treinen, a former A’s draft pick who has had trouble finding consistency with his tantalizing high-90’s sinker, and a pair of good-but-not-great talents in lefty Jesus Luzardo and infielder Sheldon Neuse.
But there’s a catch. (There’s always a catch.)
Even though the entire Nats bullpen has been a train wreck from Day 1, the caboose of said train wreck — the shiny red thing at the end that sticks out above and beyond the rest of the mess — has been the closer. Or lack thereof.
After whiffing on the big three of Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon in free agency last winter, the Nats initially anointed the unproven Treinen, who quickly proved that, good as he was in setup duty last year, he wasn’t ready for prime time. Next came veteran righty Shawn Kelley, who has never been a full-time closer. That didn’t work. After Kelley came rookie Koda Glover, who walks and talks the part but can’t seem to stay healthy. Things got so bad that 34-year-old Matt Albers, who went a major-league record 461 relief appearances without recording a save, finally tallied one. In fact, he has two saves now, one of six Washington relievers with at least two saves this season. Needless to say, the ninth inning has been a nuisance for the Nats.
If you squint your eyes just so, you could fool yourself into believing that the Madson/Doolittle deal is the remedy for Washington’s late-game letdowns. After all, Madson has plenty of closing experience, including 86 career saves and a 30-save season as recently as last year with Oakland. Then there’s Doolittle, who was an All-Star closer in 2014, when he saved 22 games for the A’s. But at the time of the trade, neither one of them was working the ninth inning in Oak-town (Santiago Casilla was), and for good reason.
Last year, despite saving 30 games, Madson posted a 3.62 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP, neither of which screams “shutdown reliever.” In related news, he blew seven save opportunities, tied for second most in the American League. Since returning to the majors in 2015, his ERA in the ninth inning (3.43) is more than a run higher than it is in the seventh and eighth. (2.26). As for Doolittle, he’s so dominant against lefties that it’s hard to envision Baker reserving him exclusively for ninth-inning use when there’s sure to be tough lefty hitters who need to be retired elsewhere in earlier innings.
All of which is to say, the Nationals still don’t have a lights-out, no-brainer option at the back end of their bullpen. Then again, it’s not like the market is brimming with lights-out, no-brainer options. This isn’t 2016, when Chapman, Melancon, and Andrew Miller all changed teams prior to the trade deadline. Instead, it’s 2017, and like it or not, David Robertson of the White Sox is pretty much the cream of the crop.
On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine Washington ponying up for someone like Robertson, who’s earning $12 million this year and another $13 million next season — especially after the not-so-inexpensive acquisition of Madson and Doolittle. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine the Nats feeling good about their chances of winning a postseason series without adding a legit closer.
In other words, just because the Madson/Doolittle deal is done, don’t expect the Nationals to be done dealing.