Column: Dumping Rosenthal isn’t enough to save Nats bullpen

It looked like they were so close.

The Nationals, despite a lackluster four-game split against the Arizona Diamondbacks to open this crucial, 11-game homestand, were achingly close to finishing it with a flourish and realigning the National League East two weeks before the All-Star break. But despite sweeping the Philadelphia Phillies in a rain-shortened, three-game set, they finished the week just as far out of first place as they began it, a full 8.5 games back, after consecutive deflating losses to the division-leading Atlanta Braves.

And while the problem remains obvious, it needs to be addressed once more: Trevor Rosenthal or no Trevor Rosenthal, this bullpen isn’t good enough to get this team to the playoffs, and failing to upgrade it will derail this season.

A cursory glance at Friday night’s game shows a closely contested affair that the Nats held on to win. But it nearly blew up as well, with Sean Doolittle unavailable, as Wander Suero allowed a walk and a single before a sharp lineout and a strikeout got him within one batter of closing the door. Dansby Swanson’s Texas leaguer into no man’s land in shallow right field could have easily tied the game or worse if not for a highlight reel diving grab by Victor Robles to save the day.

That meant that the beleaguered ‘pen entered Saturday night’s game with a chance to get their NL-worst collective ERA back under 6.00 for the first time in ages. Instead, they set their Days Since Headline-Worthy Bullpen Implosion counter back to zero by blowing not just a four-run lead in the seventh, but another lead in the eighth en route to a crushing, 13-9 loss. On Sunday, they clawed their way back into a tie game only to watch the ‘pen cough up another demoralizing home run.

How bad is the situation? The Baltimore Orioles are, somehow, an even worse team than they were last year, fueled by a true disaster of a bullpen that has allowed an astonishing 65 home runs. They are on 46-win pace. Their collective bullpen ERA? 6.16. The Nats relievers sit at 6.29.

That’s more than a run worse than any other National League team. It is on pace to be worse than that of the 2007 Tampa Bay squad, when the “Devil” was still in the Florida Gulf Coast club’s nickname; the worst this century.

Rosenthal was no small reason for some of those unsightly numbers. But he also never really showed he was ready to come back and throw strikes after a rehab assignment in which he walked seven batters and allowed two home runs in 9.1 innings at Double-A Harrisburg. So while his release Sunday was no surprise, after walking the bases loaded with the three batters he faced Saturday night, there wasn’t an abundance of good answers waiting to replace him, either in the long term or within that moment, the tying run coming to the plate in the seventh inning of a crucial division game.

Who would you consider the trustworthy options sitting behind that bullpen door? There were only two guys sporting sub-3.00 ERAs coming into Saturday night: Javy Guerra and Tanner Rainey. Guerra had pitched an inning each of the previous three nights. Rainey, with all of 20 innings of big league experience, was the one Martinez finally leaned on. He walked the first batter he saw, then gave up a should-have-read-the-scouting-report first pitch, bases-clearing double on a piped fastball to Freddie Freeman. After Rainey surrendered what would prove to be the game-winning home run in the top of the 10th inning Sunday, he has now allowed runs in four of his last five outings.

But to blame Rainey is to absolve blame from those in charge. He’s a 26-year-old whose only big league track record before this year was allowing 19 earned runs in 7.0 innings with the Reds last year. He’s now allowed seven home runs in 23.0 career big league innings. Guerra’s been a minor miracle as a reclamation project, pitching to a 2.08 ERA with the Nats after being waved by the non-competitive Blue Jays. But if there aren’t reinforcements on the way — and, yes, that’s plural, as in multiple arms to replace some of the incumbents — this season is as good as lost.

That’s the bigger issue with GM Mike Rizzo not addressing the media upon Rosenthal’s release. I don’t really care about the optics of him “ducking” some form of responsibility, but there are important questions to be answered. How flexible is the club’s payroll? What kind of relief help are they willing to target? Since they didn’t spend the money to get the readily available All-Star caliber back end reliever in Craig Kimbrel, what will they have to be willing to give up to get reinforcements in a trade? And if they aren’t willing to do one of these things, to cover their Achilles heel, how long before they pull the plug on this season?

The Nats finish the first half with a dozen games against bad teams: six against Miami and three apiece versus Detroit and Kansas City. There’s every reason to believe they could hold a late lead in many, if not most of those games. This is the softest part of the entire schedule, games the Nats need to win. It’s a great chance to gain ground on the rest of the division. I mean, have you seen the rest of the division?

There might be deals to be made out there. Shane Greene has a sub-1.00 ERA with the Tigers and would only add a couple million in salary. The Mariners seem to be open to trading anyone, an umbrella which would seemingly cover lefty Roenis Elias. But something like a reunion with Mark Melancon (if the Nats can get the Giants to eat this year’s salary) could make a lot of sense, especially if the Nats could swing another veteran reliever in the deal, like Sam Dyson or Tony Watson.

These would cost players in return, of course, but probably not nearly the haul they gave up in the deal that netted them Doolittle and Ryan Madson in a similar situation back in 2017. That year’s team needed reinforcements for the stretch run, but had a comfortable division lead. This year’s version needs help now and it can’t afford to wait to make it happen.

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