Sean Doolittle’s offseason started with travel commitments and making up to do. The Washington Nationals closer was going to hang around in the District for a bit before going to Florida, then likely Chicago. He and his now wife, Eireann Dolan, had decided to elope on an off day just before the playoffs began. So, they owe the family a party of some kind since there was no wedding.
When spring comes, Doolittle will be off to West Palm Beach, Florida. For the first time since 2013-14, the Nationals expect to have a still-capable closer in place in consecutive seasons. No in-house search after not acquiring a free agent in the offseason. No finger-crossing that an aging Jonathan Papelbon can get outs and get along. No future midseason hunt for a fix that seemed expected in the offseason.
Doolittle, 31, is part of what has become a suddenly stable and identifiable back-end of the Washington bullpen. He is under contract for three more years. The final two years of his contract are team options. Each year is at an exceptional rate. Doolittle will make just $4.35 million next season. He would cost $6 million and $6.5 million the following two seasons, respectively, if the Nationals exercise his options.
Contrast that cost with his production. Doolittle pitched 30 innings for the Nationals and blew one save after his trade from Oakland. His ERA was 2.40 largely because he had a slow start following the upheaval of the trade. Doolittle had spent a decade in Oakland’s organization before being traded. He allowed four runs in his first four appearances with the Nationals — three runs in one outing against Milwaukee on July 26. From there, he allowed four runs the rest of the season, good for a 1.38 ERA during that time.
Ryan Madson will be back, too. He carried a 1.37 ERA as Doolittle’s setup man since being acquired in the same trade for Blake Treinen and two low-level minor-league players, Jesus Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse. Madson has a base salary of $7.5 million for next season. That is high for the standard setup reliever, particularly one who will turn 38 years old next August and has Tommy John surgery behind him. But, Doolittle’s contract helps unwind the heft of Madson’s, providing an opportunity for the Nationals to spend even more on the back end of the bullpen, if they choose to.
In front of that duo will be change. Brandon Kintzler, who was also acquired in a midseason trade, is a free agent. Before being traded, Kintzler excelled as a closer for the Minnesota Twins. He will likely be searching to reprise that role somewhere else.
Left-handed matchup specialist Oliver Perez is also a free agent. He will be 37 next season, went through a season of declined effectiveness in 2017 and is unlikely to be back. His departure would take $4 million off the cost of the bullpen again enabling the Nationals to try and pile money together for one of the better relievers on the market.
Matt Albers, who became the unlikely rescuer of the bullpen before the All-Star break, is also a free agent. He will turn 35 in the offseason following the best year of his career. The question around Albers is if his high-end pitching of 2017 is to be believed. In 2016, his ERA was almost five runs higher. But, the season before, his ERA was a mere 1.21. Since 2012, Albers has been an effective reliever outside of his poor 2016 season. Is he worth paying to come back? After making just $1.15 million last season, he will be in search of a raise after finishing the year with a 1.62 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning.
One place the Nationals remain on the hook is with Shawn Kelley. The three-year contract he signed in the offseason before 2016 was a surprise in length. Three-year deals for relievers, especially if they are not closers, are rare. Kelley dealt with a flood of physical problems in 2017 that rendered him ineffective and unsure what his offseason would entail.
“I think there’s still too much uncertainty to really feel anything right now,” Kelley said in late September. “We’ve still got to talk more to the doctors and trainers, do a couple more tests and get a better picture of what’s going on. There’s obviously some inflammation and some discomfort. .. But there’s no definitive solution at this point.”
Kelley threw just 26 innings last season. He allowed 12 home runs. He is a damaged pitcher who is not inexpensive: Kelley will pull-in $5.5 million in the final season of his contract. If he his healthy entering spring training, Kelley is a complete wild-card.
Joining him with unclear status is Koda Glover. He threw just 19 ⅓ innings last season before being placed on the disabled list because of what was initially called lower back stiffness. Turned out that Glover was dealing with “severe” rotator cuff inflammation by midseason. In September, he was shut down for the year. Glover went from a strong candidate for the closer spot in spring training following a swift rise through the minor-league system, to a non-contributor.
Sammy Solis remains under team control. As do Matt Grace, Jacob Turner and Trevor Gott.
At the least, the Nationals start with a clear picture in the late innings. In the offseason, they will have to figure out who provides them the best path to get there.
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