WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Joe Nathan tucked a football under his arm and ran out of the double doors in the Washington Nationals new clubhouse. Out back is a fresh “agility field” for players to work on. Nathan was turning it into a temporary football field.
He looked spry for a 42-year-old reliever who twice has had Tommy John surgery and is entering his 17th major league season. What he has left in his right arm, which has produced 377 saves, can be folded into the other questions about Nationals relievers as they search for a closer. The only thing clear the day pitchers and catchers reported is that manager Dusty Baker wants one person for the job.
“Well, without a real, bonafide closer, somebody always emerges,” Baker said Tuesday. “I don’t like by committee because when the phone rings I want guys to know mentally when they might be in the game. So we’ll come up with that and if we have to still tweak and experiment – last year, don’t forget, we didn’t start out knowing the roles of the guys here other than [closer Jonathan Papelbon] and then we didn’t know where we were going to use [Felipe Rivero]. We didn’t know where we were going to use [Shawn] Kelley. We didn’t know where we were going to use a lot of guys. And they end up emerging. We learned which guys can pitch a lot and which guys are injured and which guys need some rest and time off.”
The Nationals started last season with Papelbon. Once it was clear he was not effective enough to ride to the postseason, they acquired Mark Melancon. He delivered a 1.82 ERA, but decided to take a larger offer in the offseason from the San Francisco Giants. Washington offered large sums of cash to Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, but not enough to pry him out of California.
So, where to turn?
In 2015, Nathan had his second Tommy John surgery. He’s pitched 6 ⅓ innings since. Kelley has also had two Tommy John surgeries, though remains an effective reliever. He had a 2.64 ERA and seven saves last season. Koda Glover is young and struggled at times last season after blazing through the Nationals’ farm system and into the major leagues. Blake Treinen found solutions against left-handed batters last year, making him a candidate. Lefties hit .221 last season against Treinen a year after they pulverized him for a .336 average.
“Everybody’s in that situation where you have to learn,” Baker said. “And [Treinen] learned. And he ended up getting lefties out equal to righties. So is that fair to say that he’s a candidate for that situation or are we rushing him because you want him to evolve rather him quickly but you want him to evolve and not destroy him?
“I’ve seen guys’ confidence get destroyed too and I’m going to call upon my past and what I’ve seen. And then Kelley’s case, we had to watch and monitor Kelley because Kelley was one of the guys I was talking about that has had two Tommy Johns. He seems a likely candidate but we got to see can his arm sustain? Or else we’ll be looking for somebody else and be without him too.That’s the thing you don’t want. And then you got to replace two people.
“So we’ll see. And Joe Nathan’s in camp. He’s closed too. I had him as a kid. And I begged the Giants not to trade him. So I’m curious to see how much Joe is Joe. And so it’s all about performance. We’ll see. I’ll try to leave emotion out of it as much as I can and just go with what I see. Or what may be. Sometimes you go on not only hat you see, but what you project. ‘Hey man, if you can do this up here and then down there, and add that to your arsenal, then you can be even better.’”