It’s April 7. The Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals will each play the eighth game of their respective seasons Sunday afternoon. Both teams, as is, have rosters that should help them reach the postseason in some capacity.
In some senses, it’s almost impossible to offer any commentary on the baseball season until the season is at least a month old without a hoard of angry social media users reminding you that “It’s only been seven games, idiot!”. Yes, it has only been seven games. And in the case of the Phillies, those seven games have been encouraging. But the Phillies and Nationals were two of the teams most connected to seven-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel prior to the season. And the bullpens of both teams haven’t exactly eased any of the qualms surrounding their need for one more legitimate option like Kimbrel in the early going.
“I don’t know, I’ve been sucking out there, that’s for sure,” Phillies reliever David Robertson said after last Wednesday’s loss to the Nationals. “I throw it over the plate, it gets hit. I can’t throw strikes – I’m walking guys and putting guys on, I’m giving them every chance to score runs. I’m pitching like crap and it sucks. I’m very frustrated with myself. I’m itching for another outing and I’m just tired of doing badly out there.”
After a single by Anthony Rendon to open up the bottom of the ninth, Robertson surrendered three consecutive walks to the Nationals, allowing them to walk-off with a 9-8 victory. On Opening Day, the Phillies won 10-4 over the Atlanta Braves, but Robertson allowed two hits and one earned run in the top of the eighth. Two days later, he walked Dansby Swanson to lead off the ninth inning, before giving up a two-run home run to Charlie Culberson. The Phillies still won the game 8-6, but Robertson’s struggles in his first two appearances raised some eyebrows.
Robertson, who the Phillies inked to a two-year/$23 million deal in January, pitched a clean ninth inning in Friday’s 10-4 win over the Minnesota Twins. This isn’t a matter of the stage being too big for him. He set up games for Mariano Rivera and Aroldis Chapman in New York. Between 2014 and 2016, he saved 110 games for the Yankees and Chicago White Sox. In a profession where it’s hard to find stability, the 33-year-old righty has been a reliable option in a variety of roles for the better part of a decade. There’s every reason to think Robertson will recover from his slow start to his first season in red pinstripes.
The scarier part for the Phillies may be the start that Seranthony Dominguez has had to the 2019 season. In his rookie season of 2018, Dominguez flashed the potential to thrive as either someone that pitched in high-leverage situations after the starting pitcher had exited the game and/or as a closer. But after allowing a three-run home run to Eddie Rosario in the ninth inning of Saturday’s loss to the Twins, Dominguez has an ERA of 15.43. Again, he’s only made three appearances this season – it’s an incredibly small sample size. But all three of Dominguez’s most effective pitches a season ago – his fourseam fastball, his changeup and his slider – have all seen dips in their velocity to start the season. The dips have been slight, but not so slight that they aren’t worth monitoring.
The Nationals have a different issue. Sean Doolitte, the Nationals closer, hasn’t allowed a run over his first three appearances of the 2019 season. Doolittle, 32, is similar in many senses to what the Phillies hoped to get from Robertson. In seven plus seasons, Doolittle has 82 saves. He can close, and close well. But he’s proven capable of pitching in a variety of roles, which makes the Nationals an intriguing potential fit for Kimbrel.
While Doolittle has done nothing to lose the closer’s job, the Nationals have struggled to get the ball to him in the ninth inning. In the same game last Wednesday afternoon where Robertson ultimately walked in the winning run, the trio of Tony Sipp, Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough combined to cough up a 6-4 lead, with an Andrew McCutchen bases-clearing double the highlight of a four-run inning.
Rosenthal, who was an All-Star with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015, missed the entire 2018 season after having Tommy John Surgery. Looking to sure up the bridge to Doolittle, the Nationals signed Rosenthal to a one-year/$7 million free-agent contract last November. The good news is that he’s pushing 100 mph again. Unfortunately for Rosenthal and the Nationals, he hasn’t recorded an out in three appearances because he hasn’t been able to locate his pitches.
Nationals manager Dave Martinez tried using Justin Miller in the eighth inning with a one-run lead over the New York Mets Saturday afternoon. Miller allowed back-to-back home runs from Pete Alonso and Robinson Cano to tie the game. Before the end of the inning, Keon Broxton brought Michael Conforto home with an RBI single. The Mets bullpen, anchored by Jeurys Familia and Edwin Diaz, allowed the Mets to steal a win over the Nationals.
The Phillies, Nationals and really, the entire league having reservations about signing Kimbrel this offseason made sense at one point. Kimbrel had a very good 2018 regular season, with 42 saves, a 2.74 ERA and a 3.13 FIP. It was a step back from his dominant 2017 season – where he posted a 1.43 ERA, a 1.42 FIP and a 3.3 fWAR – but he was still one of the better closers in the sport during the regular season. However, Kimbrel ran out of gas entirely in the postseason, posting a 5.91 ERA in the Red Sox World Series run.
Not only did Kimbrel’s postseason run leave some with a bad taste in their mouth, but he also reportedly opened the offseason seeking a six-year deal. Even at age 30 – he’ll be 31 in May – six years is a difficult ask. If Kimbrel became a free-agent after 2017, there may have been a market for that, or that may have been a realistic starting point. But after his disappointing postseason run, asking for north of $100 million came off as delusions of grandeur from Kimbrel’s camp.
But for any concerns there may be about Kimbrel, it is fair to be flabbergasted by his continued presence on the free-agent market. His 211 ERA+ is the best in baseball history among relievers, topping Hall of Famers Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Dennis Eckersley, among others. His 333 career saves are 14th in baseball history, and the most among active closers. This is an all-time great, one that may not have six more elite years left, but certainly would help a postseason contender immediately.
Granted, there are mixed reports about how much – if at all – Kimbrel’s asking-price has lowered since late 2018. His agent scoffed at a report that Kimbrel was prepared to sit out the 2019 season if his asking-price wasn’t met. More likely, though, is that teams will circle back to Kimbrel after June 5. Not only will that give potential suitors a chance to evaluate the bullpen talent that they have internally, but after the MLB Draft concludes on June 5, any team signing Kimbrel would no longer have to surrender draft compensation to the Red Sox, who placed a qualifying offer on Kimbrel before he became a free-agent.
The Phillies bullpen may stabilize over the next two months. They have the talent on-hand for that to theoretically happen. The Nationals probably don’t, though they may prefer to keep Doolittle in the closer’s role and trade for a cheaper option before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. But there will be serious interest in Kimbrel, even if it doesn’t ultimately come from the Phillies. The Milwaukee Brewers have been credibly connected to Kimbrel for some time. There continues to be speculation that the Atlanta Braves, who employed Kimbrel for the first five years of his career, could make a push for a reunion.
For now, it would behoove Kimbrel to stay as ready as he can be outside of an organization, in case a team caves prior to the MLB Draft. But there’s a good chance that at some point early this summer, Kimbrel will have multiple teams prepared to make competitive offers to him. And the first week of the 2019 season suggests a few National League contenders would be wise to stay in his ear.
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