Every team needs Craig Kimbrel, frankly. But I’m watching the late innings of Wednesday afternoon’s series finale between the Phillies and Nationals. The Nats had a comfortable 6-2 lead that completely disappeared, mostly thanks to the bullpen. The game is now tied 8-8.
Lefty Tony Sipp started the top of the eighth inning for the Nationals with a 6-4 lead. He gave up a single to Odúbel Herrera, then struck out Andrew Knapp. Nationals manager Dave Martinez opted to bring in right-hander Trevor Rosenthal to pitch to Maikel Franco, who has been red-hot to start the year. Rosenthal walked Franco, then walked Scott Kingery to load the bases for Andrew McCutchen. Martinez had seen enough. He lifted Rosenthal to bring in fellow newcomer Kyle Barraclough. McCutchen worked a 2-2 count before drilling a bases-clearing double to deep center field, allowing the Phillies to take a 7-6 lead. Jean Segura added an insurance run with a bloop single to left field to make it 8-6.
It had only been four games, but the Nationals’ bullpen entered Wednesday’s action with a league-worst 12.71 ERA. 16 runs allowed (all earned) on 23 hits and six walks with 10 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings. Hilariously, Wednesday’s effort by the bullpen actually lowered the collective ERA to 11.74 — that’s how bad they have been.
MASN’s Pete Kerzel reported last month that the Nationals were unwilling to exceed the luxury tax (also known as the competitive balance tax) threshold of $206 million. According to Cot’s Contracts, the Nationals currently sit about $8.7 million under the CBT. For those that don’t know, teams that go above the CBT are taxed 20 percent for each dollar above. The penalty increases for repeat offenses on a year-to-year basis. Two consecutive years above the CBT incurs a 30 percent penalty while three straight seasons incurs a 50 percent penalty.
Let’s say the Nationals were to sign Kimbrel to a three-year, $60 million deal. For CBT purposes, the average annual value (AAV) is considered, so this would put the Nationals $11.3 million above the CBT. They were above the CBT in each of the last three seasons as well, so they would incur a 50 percent penalty on $11.3 million, or $5.65 million. That would effectively make the Nationals’ cost to sign Kimbrel, in this hypothetical scenario, $65.65 million. For a team owned by Ted Lerner, with a net worth of about $5 billion, and for a franchise valued by Forbes at $1.675 billion, the difference is a drop in the bucket. For their investment, their team — considered by many to still be the favorites in the NL East even without Bryce Harper — would address a legitimate area of concern.
This isn’t just an irrational reaction to a small sample size. The bullpen was an obvious weakness going into the season. Beyond closer Sean Doolittle, who is terrific, the corps of Rosenthal, Barraclough, Sipp, Justin Miller, Matt Grace, and Wander Suero was anything but a sure thing. Rosenthal missed all of 2018 due to Tommy John surgery. The Nationals picked him up on the relative cheap — one-year, $6 million — because of this. Similarly, the Nationals waited out the market to pick up Sipp on the cheap (one year, $2.5 million). Sipp was dominant in 38 2/3 innings for the Astros last year but combined for a 5.33 ERA in 2016-17. Barraclough, acquired from the Marlins, entered the season with a 14.3 percent walk rate. The only reliever with a higher walk rate since 2015 is the Rangers’ José Leclerc (15.8%). Miller entered the year with a career 4.48 ERA. Grace had struck out only 97 batters in 129 2/3 innings coming into 2019. Suero is in only his second season.
Kimbrel, one of the greatest closers of all time, has somehow made it into April unsigned. He would bolster an otherwise mediocre bullpen, plugging up a leak that threatens to cost the Nationals wins and ground in a highly competitive NL East division.