- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A dash here, a pinch there, then stir and cross fingers. Bullpen mixology is often unpredictable. Low ERAs on paper can turn into flammable disasters in September. Many throughout baseball argue salary should not be funneled into a bullpen. That is, until the bullpen fails, providing repeated knocks to the head and hope of a team expected to make the playoffs. Then, investment is considered.

The Washington Nationals find themselves re-brewing their late-inning approach. Last season’s bullpen blended failure with discontent. Blake Treinen, thought a young setup man, could not retire left-handed batters. Aaron Barrett was overused, less effective, then injured. Casey Janssen’s ERA roared upward to 4.95. Drew Storen again lost his position as closer. Jonathan Papelbon’s arrival dumped gasoline onto what was a slow burn.

That is why general manager Mike Rizzo went to the Winter Meetings with reconstruction on his mind. Each time he had the opportunity, Rizzo stated the bullpen needed to improve. He let Janssen leave. Veteran left-hander Matt Thornton was also not re-signed, despite one of the better seasons of his 12-year career. He will only say that Papelbon and Storen are currently on the roster. He does not elaborate.

Rizzo has spent money and traded a .300 hitter to help the back end of the pitching staff. He stepped away from a trade for Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, when domestic violence allegations against the pitcher arose. Before spring training, he will have to sort out the odd mix of Storen and Papelbon. The first he does not appear to believe in, having removed him three times from the closer’s role. The latter, well, he’s a wild card who will be booed by home fans for choking Bryce Harper, the National League MVP, at the end of last season. Papelbon melted down on the field in his last outing, was suspended without pay for attacking Harper, and is now suing the team to recoup the week’s worth of pay he lost. If Rizzo had hair on his head, Papelbon’s tenure thus far would put it in jeopardy.

Here is what Rizzo is looking at: A mid-pack bullpen that folded when the game was tight. As a group, the Nationals finished sixth in ERA in the NL. Most of their problems came in the seventh and eighth inning. In the seventh, the bullpen’s ERA rose to 3.94, which was seventh in the league. In the eighth, it was 3.94, 10th in the league. The ninth was solid: a 2.87 ERA, good for fourth among the 15 NL teams.

It’s in the so-called “late-close situations” the bullpen failed. To qualify as a late-close situation, the game is in the seventh inning, or later, and the batting team is either leading by a run, tied or has the potential tying run on base, at bat or on deck. These are the games the can tear hearts out or pump them up.

The Nationals carried a 4.39 ERA in late-close situations. That was 12th in the NL and a soul-crushing 26th in all of baseball.

So, Rizzo has made four bullpen moves this offseason. Right-hander Shawn Kelley, he of the high strikeout rate, wipeout slider and the rubber horse head, signed a three-year contract. Left-handed veteran Oliver Perez was signed to get fellow southpaws out. Pocket rocket Trevor Gott was acquired from the Los Angeles Angels for Yunel Escobar, who hit .314 last season. Swingman Yusmeiro Petit, a former San Francisco Giants righty implanted in the bad dreams of Nationals fans, was also signed.

Kelley may have the most impact. In the unlikely world where Papelbon and Storen co-exist, Kelley could be essentially a third closer, working the seventh inning. Last season with the San Diego Padres was Kelley’s best. A 2.45 ERA was arrived at thanks to reduced walk and home run rates being joined by his usual brisk strikeout rate. For his career, Kelley strikes out 10.2 batters per nine innings. He struck out 11 per nine innings last season.

Kelley has worked the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. He’s also jovial and amicable. When with the New York Yankees in 2014, Kelley figured the team needed a comic jolt during the pennant race. After Googling “horse head,” he ran onto the field for pregame stretch with a rubber one covering his human head.

“The horse head is not retired,” Kelley said last weekend. “I will not comment any further.”

Gott is a fastball dominant young right-hander, inaccurately and almost comically listed at 6 feet tall. He’s more toward 5-foot-7. He throws hard, averaging 96.2 mph on his fastball, and throws hard often, hurling his fastball 84.4 percent of the time. Last year was his first big-league season.

“You have to be ready every day,” Gott said. “You have to be consistent. You can’t work on stuff during games like you can in the minor leagues. You have to have your best stuff, and if your don’t, you have to figure out a way to still get people out.”

Perez changed his baseball life in 2010 when he moved to the bullpen. At this point, he’s evolved into a matchup left-handed pitcher. Last season, left-handed batters hit just .185 against him. During the last three seasons, left-handers have a .312 on-base percentage versus Perez.

Petit is malleable. He can pitch long relief, a single inning or be an in-case-of-emergency starter. He pitched 76 innings last season for the Giants.

“He’s a terrific major league pitcher,” Rizzo said. “He’s a good swing guy. Started games for a world championship team.”

Bullpens are ideas and numbers in December. The Nationals have tried to reconfigure theirs, knowing last season’s thoughts and math produced only angry faces.

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