Today is Feb. 10. Nationals pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach on Feb. 14. As of Friday, the Nationals do not have a clear-cut closer on the roster. They seem unlikely to have one by Feb. 14, though one must never rule these things out.
Assuming the Nationals do not add a closer, they will likely begin the season with Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen in that role. If neither sticks, perhaps Koda Glover will be ready.
But if no one emerges by late July, and the Nationals are still in the race, might they opt for the path they chose with mixed results the past two seasons and add a closer around the deadline? Or even just choose a new one from within?
Changing closers mid-season is the newest accidental baseball trend. The 2016 world champion Cubs added Aroldis Chapman. The 2015 world champion Royals ditched Greg Holland for Wade Davis when Holland’s elbow acted up. The 2014 Giants demoted Sergio Romo in favor of Santiago Casilla before they won it all. The 2013 Red Sox had to pivot to Koji Uehara midway through their eventual championship season. Romo was not the Giants’ closer on Opening Day of the 2012 season, but he was their closer in October, when they won the World Series.
Not having a closer on Opening Day is far from damning. In fact, if it weren’t for the indigestion it causes managers and fans, one might actually recommend it.
Kelley and Treinen and Glover all have the skills required to close, but if none seem to fit and the Nationals look outside the organization, the trade deadline might not yield many options worth their price in prospect gold — and the Nationals, after sending so much talent to Chicago in the Adam Eaton deal, might not have the prospects with which to pay. But because, again, the Nationals have dealt for a closer in July for two straight seasons, it is worth exploring their potential options this July all the same.
The most obvious targets are those closers who will be free agents after this season, the ones teams who do not depend on their services will want to turn into some kind of value before they sign elsewhere in the winter. One familiar name is Jeanmar Gomez, the Phillies closer who had 37 saves last season, fifth most in baseball. Tony Watson, who seems likely to succeed Mark Melancon as the Pirates’ regular closer, will also be a free agent after this upcoming season. The Red Sox have a $13 million club option on Craig Kimbrel for the 2018 season, but they seem unlikely to fall out of contention and consider offloading parts.
Andrew Miller would be a free agent after the 2018 season, but the Indians, too, seem to be loading up, not unloading. Royals closer Kelvin Herrera is also locked down through 2018, and while a Royals firesale is not out of the question, the asking price would likely be high. Zach Britton would likewise be a free agent two seasons from now and potentially available at a deadline sometime soon. But it seems unlikely that Peter Angelos would allow the best closer his franchise has ever built to go to the other team on MASN.
In other words, after an offseason dominated by high-priced, high-profile closers, the market for the next year or so seems less bullish. The Nationals, who missed out on the historically highly paid closers this offseason, might be better served settling their ninth-inning future internally: Treinen will be eligible for arbitration for the first time next winter. Koda Glover is a half-decade away from free agency. Even Kelley is under contract through at least the 2018 season. Absorbing a few bumps and bruises here and there might save the Nationals tens of millions of dollars, or a few key prospects later. Then again, ninth-inning bruises tend to sting more than others, particularly for a team trying to contend.