MIAMI — The ache of what could have been, and promise of what could be, was spread around the National League All-Star clubhouse Tuesday night. Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen was aligned with his fellow Dodgers on the opposite side from the Washington Nationals contingent. A handful of lockers away from Jansen was Colorado closer Greg Holland. Both were free agents in the offseason. Neither came to Washington. Both became All-Stars.
On the other side, where five Nationals nameplates were next to each other, reliever Pat Neshek stood as the lone representative for the last-place Philadelphia Phillies. Since May 1, he’s been anticipating a trade that will send him to a contender for a prospect. Neshek is 36 years old. He knows how these things work.
The hole in the Nationals’ pursuit of more, moving on from the first round of the playoffs, chopping at the city’s dismal postseason history, was displayed at the All-Star Game. The what-if around Jansen and Holland is enough to produce a haze. Where would Washington, a 52-win, first-place team that carries baseball’s worst bullpen ERA, be with either?
Washington talked to both in the offseason. It launched a thorough effort to acquire Jansen. As he tells it, the Nationals offered him more total money than he signed for in Los Angeles ($80 million). What he said was a minimal gap between the organizations, but enough to sway him back to his beloved L.A., could swing the National League pennant.
“It was close,” Jansen said. “I ain’t going to lie. Washington is a top-line organization. [Team president Mike] Rizzo did a great job. I have a lot of respect for him, what he did making an offer and making a run at me. At the end of the day, my family, me, everybody just wanted to be in L.A. I wanted to be back in L.A. with all my guys and try to do it again, make a run at it again. We saw how close [we are] to it. We wanted to win as a Dodger. At the end of the day, we wanted to be back.”
The Nationals’ willingness to part with money, especially for a closer, has often been criticized. In this case, Jansen said there was ample money.
“Let me say, I don’t like to talk about that,” Jansen said. “[The Nationals’ offer] was better than what I got. At the end of the day, it wasn’t about the money. It was, but it wasn’t about the money. It was about where I wanted to stay, where my heart is. I don’t want to take that Dodgers uniform away…. It’s been a long road. I wanted to accomplish one dream I have left: to win the World Series there. That’s a big part of why I wanted to stay there.”
His production this season is almost laughable. He struck out 51 batters before walking one, putting him at the All-Star break with 57 strikeouts and two walks. His ERA is 0.96. His WHIP is 0.56. He has not blown a save.
“Like I said, I have a lot of respect for them,” Jansen said. “I will always be thankful for what they did for me. At the end of the day, my decision was to stay in L.A.”
Holland did not make it as far. He said, “there was a lot of interest there from both sides,” but that interest never led to an offer.
“I don’t think there was ever even numbers thrown out there,” Holland said.
Jansen was as close to a guarantee as a closer gets. Holland, despite his past success, was a risk-reward project for any team that signed him. He missed 2016 because of Tommy John Surgery. Kansas City released him to the market. Colorado took the chance for a mere $7 million.
Holland has helped turn the Rockies into a National League contender. His work is not as potent as Jansen’s. However, it is among the best in the National League: 1.62 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 43 strikeouts in 33 ⅓ innings, a league-leading 28 saves.
Not signing Jansen, Holland or any high-end closer, plus the failure of the bullpen as a whole, puts Washington on the hunt the next 20 days. July 31 is the MLB trade deadline. Neshek is expecting to hear his name called by that time.
He has a 1.24 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, funky delivery and playoff experience. Philadelphia is 22 1/2 games out of first place at the break. Neshek, who has played for six teams, is accustomed to the routine of moving to a new city on the fly. It’s a bigger challenge now that he has a three-year-old son, one-year-old daughter, and a baby girl who was born April 20. They will be in tow if Neshek is moved out of Philadelphia and thankful if the relocation was just a drive to the District from Philadelphia.
“It’d be a lot of fun,” Neshek said. “[The Nationals are] good. I played with a few of the guys at the World Baseball Classic. [Daniel] Murphy, Tanner [Roark]. They’re hitting. [Ryan] Zimmerman is hitting the heck out of the ball. It’s a scary team. We played them tough early on. But, man, they’ve just been destroying teams. It’d be a fun fit.”
Neshek’s awareness of Washington’s main problem is illustrative of the challenge that will come when trying to solve it. Teams will push the Nationals to the edge of the deadline before giving in. Moving Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez in the offseason lessened their prospect pool. Injuries to Shawn Kelley and Sammy Solis have knocked out their setup men. An injury to Koda Glover dropped their second choice for in-house closer. They need multiple boosts from inside and out.
If Jansen had taken the money, a massive bullpen factor would have been resolved. If Holland was signed, the same could be said. If Neshek is acquired, he will be a step toward help, though not a resolution. Seeing the trio at the All-Star Game reminds of what didn’t happen in the offseason, what could be coming by the end of the month and the gap that could define Washington’s season.