No one is quite sure where the term “bullpen” came from.
No, Tony LaRussa didn’t invent it, and Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo would just as soon forget he ever heard the term.
It has been the bane of his existence for four years now — the Drew Storen postseason meltdowns in 2012 and 2014, along with, of course, the disaster that was Washington’s bullpen last season, ending with the Jonathan Papelbon/Bryce Harper battle royal in view of everyone in the Nationals dugout.
Bullpen? During the Civil War, it was believed to be the term used for shelter in prison camps by the inmates. It has felt that way for Rizzo, and here he is, trying to patch together another one for 2016 to complement that talented lineup and starting pitching that still makes up much of the Nationals’ roster.
On paper, it looks like he has put together a bullpen that should hold up it end. He traded third baseman Yunel Escobar to the Los Angeles Angels for young, hard-throwing righthander Trevor Gott. He signed relievers Oliver Perez, Shawn Kelley and Yusmeiro Petit. You remember Petit, don’t you? He’s the one who shut out the Nationals for five innings in relief for the Giants in the legendary 18-inning, 2-1 loss in Game 2 of the National League Division Series.
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“He’s a terrific major-league pitcher,” Rizzo told reporters about Petit. “He’s a good swing guy. He started games for a world championship team. He has pitched leverage innings in playoffs. He is battle-tested and really gives the manager a lot of freedom and diversity. He can start. He can relieve. He can pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen. He can spot start for you and he can be in the rotation for you.”
Great. It all looks good.
Nobody has any idea if it will work.
Baseball personnel men such as Rizzo put major-league rosters together based in large part on track records — what players have done. There may be no more consistent and predictable performance sport than baseball. What a player has done for three or four seasons is generally how they will perform — unless age or injury get in the way.
Relievers, though, are a different animal. They can change from one season to the next, based on all sorts of variables. Petit, Perez, Gott, Kelley, any or all of them are capable of going south in any given season — like 2016, perhaps.
Rizzo thought he had put together a bullpen capable of doing the job in 2015, too. How did that work out?
He had to trade set up reliever Tyler Clippard, who was set to earn $8 million, under orders to cut the payroll to $140 million last winter, and thought he came up with an adequate replacement in Casey Jannsen for $5 million. He had a down year with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2014, with a 3.94 ERA in 50 appearances while saving 25 games. Before that, Jannsen had ERAs of 2.56, 2.54 and 2.26 in three consecutive seasons and 173 appearances with the Blue Jays. He had enough of a track record to believe he could do the job in place of Clippard.
Then it all fell apart last year — a 4.95 ERA in 48 appearances, missing the start of the season with a shoulder injury and never quite recovering.
Bullpens — they are a tricky thing, a necessary evil.
It’s hard enough to do without the closer-urned-setup man who has blown the biggest games in the history of the franchise breaking his hand slamming his locker in a fit of anger, and then, of course, the closer you traded for choking the biggest star on the team in front of the hometown fans.
Rizzo can bring in all the Gotts and Petits he can find, but it doesn’t solve the Storen and Papelbon problems.
Storen as closer was a problem. You can’t have faith in the pitcher who holds the success of an entire season in his hand in the biggest games and then fails. Washington tried to do so last winter attempting to get Craig Kimbrel from the Atlanta Braves, but the Braves would not deal him within the NL East. The fact that Storen is seen by some fans as a victim in Rizzo’s bullpen creations shows how far this town has to go to be a baseball town. He broke his thumb slamming his lockbox at his locker in rage when his team needed him. He will be difficult to trade.
Not as difficult as Papelbon, though. The narrative on the controversial closer, obtained by Rizzo at the trading deadline last season, has been that he is a “cancer” in the clubhouse. He was well-liked and considered a standup teammate with the Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and yes, in his short time here in Washington. But he is despised in the media, and now, has become public enemy No. 1 with Washington baseball fans.
I don’t know how that gets fixed.
You can’t have scenes where your closer is being booed by packed houses in your home ballpark, and that is the future for Papelbon in Washington. The damage may be done, no matter how many times Harper will declare he and Papelbon are OK now. He, with the $11 million he is due next season, is nearly impossible to trade.
The biggest job putting together a bullpen — a challenging task under normal circumstances — is still in front of Rizzo.
⦁ Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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