The Nationals Bullpen: What To Doo…


WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 20: Sean Doolittle #63 of the Washington Nationals reacts after the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park on June 20, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Shortly before starting this post, I knew exactly what I was going to write. Roenis Elias and Sean Doolittle are coming of the injured list, and I wanted to discuss how their returns will reshape the bullpen.

I’ll still be doing that, but something happened today that I can’t wrap my head around, and it has a trickle-down effect in regards to who fills what roles.

That’s right, Matt Grace — who has seemingly been on his last life with the organization since May — has been designated for assignment. That’s fine on paper, but puzzling nonetheless. What makes now different?

Back in July when Elias, Hunter Strickland, and Daniel Hudson were acquired, one of the corresponding transactions was to DFA Javy Guerra in favor of Grace. In my eyes, nothing has changed: They are both sporadically used, they both have on and off games, and neither have taken on substantially different roles than they had before. Yet now they’re viewed differently.

Quite frankly, it would’ve made more sense to dump Grace in July, when the Nationals could’ve tried to get him through waivers and back to AAA, since he has been more effective in years past. Instead, they’re moving on from him just two days before rosters expand anyway, when no DFA would’ve been necessary at all.

They couldn’t wait two days.

But back to the larger point. Elias and Doolittle, two lefties that have been on the Nationals roster together for one game, are either back or extremely close to being back — Doolittle is rehabbing at High-A Potomac, presumably until the minor league season ends and September 1 rolls around. What does that mean for the bullpen?

If you missed it, I was recently asked a variation of this question on the Urban Sports Scene podcast.

At the time, I said that Doolittle should not return to the closer role by default. But my opinion is actually much more complex than that. Even aside from Doolittle’s struggles before his “knee injury,” there were matchup numbers that caught my eye.

The team’s incumbent and interim closers have complimentary splits. In fact, Doolittle is the Nationals’ only go-to reliever — including Elias, a fellow southpaw — who has more success against lefties than righties. With that being the case, does it really make sense to automatically use him in the ninth inning and never have a dependable situational left-hander?

If the Nationals didn’t have any other reliable option to close games, the answer would still be yes. But they do now. In fact, they arguably have four — all of whom were midseason acquisitions.

Elias is the confounding variable. He can be used in many roles. He recorded 14 saves with the Mariners this year prior to being traded; he typically is better against lefties (this year aside); and was a part-time starter as recently as last year, so he can be that much-needed multi-inning reliever.

The two latter points are the most relevant for the Nationals (not that the ability to get the last three outs isn’t also important). And given how deep into games their top starters tend to go, he generally wont be needed in long relief either.

The question is clear: Can he return to his old form against left-handed hitters? If he can, Doolittle’s fate lies in his own hands. But if he can’t and has to be used in a more Matt Grace-like role — which is the nice way of saying being a benchwarmer — Doolittle can’t be used in the ninth inning.

As I stated on Twitter, at some point in the near future, the Nationals will need someone who can get Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo, and Cody Bellinger out — ninth inning or otherwise. If that leads to Sean Doolittle coming in early, oh well! Daniel Hudson can suffice as the closer, but it ultimately depends on Elias — and possibly a September call-up, but that’s a discussion for another day.

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