Will Nats regret missing out on Craig Kimbrel?

Ben Krimmel
June 06, 2019 - 12:24 pm

You can call off the search. Your watch has ended.

Craig Kimbrel has been spotted with an MLB team. But, no, World Series winner from a season ago did not emerge from hiding and appear in Washington. 

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All it took for the All-Star closer to sign was a three-year, $43 million contract offer from the Chicago Cubs. 

The Washington Nationals, though in need of bullpen help, never seemed serious contenders in the Kimbrel sweepstakes.

But... why not?

Through 61 games, the Nats' bullpen numbers are atrocious. They have the worst bullpen ERA in all of baseball at 6.68 while throwing the fewest innings of any team in baseball at 183 1/3 innings. Opposing batters are batting .283 off Washington relief pitchers, also the worst in all of baseball.

In May, general manager Mike Rizzo said on 106.7 The Fan the club was looking at all avenues.

"So we're looking for all avenues to improve ourselves bullpen-wise," he continued. "And as our lineup kind of gets whole and gets healthy, we feel that we're gonna score enough runs. Lately, with our starters going short within their starts, we've had to really lean on the bullpen the last four or five games."

So what was likely the main stumbling block? Money.

In spring training, managing principal owner Mark Lerner said avoiding the luxury tax was a top goal of the organization: “It’s a pretty severe penalty if you go over and it’s been our goal all year to stay under that,” Lerner told NBC Sports Washington

Rizzo said something similar in March: “I think we’ve got a really talented team that we’ve put together within the parameters of what we wanted to do,” he said. “We’re under the (luxury tax) and that’s where we want to stay.”

Washington is currently about $8.7 million under the luxury tax threshold, per Cot's Baseball Contracts

Danny Rouhier is disappointed the Nats didn't try to sign Kimbrel and disappointed the Nationals ownership has walked a line between getting better and staying below the luxury tax. 

"The thing that's preventing them from winning a division, the thing that's going to prevent them from winning a playoff series, or having anything meaningful happen this year is the bullpen. Be desperate to fix the bullpen," Rouhier said Thursday. "I understand you can't be so desperate it cripples the organization, I understand that you can't sacrifice two, three years from now international bonus money, draft picks, whatever. I get that. I need you to be investigating every possible path."

While starter Dallas Keuchel remains the last of the big name unsigned pitchers, the Nationals rotation hasn't been that big of a stumbling block, their ERA is 3.80 (seventh best in MLB) and batting average against is 40 points lower than the relievers (.238) and good for sixth best in baseball. (Later on Thursday, Keuchel agreed to a one-year deal with the Atlanta Braves which will pay him $13 million for the remainder of the season.)

"In-season, I never would have thought about (signing Kimbrel) for one second. And Dallas Keuchel is the guy I wanted to sign all along and that's the guy I would prefer if I'm going to go over the luxury tax," Grant Paulsen said on 106.7 The Fan. "So I'm not bothered that they didn't sign Kimbrel." 

Rouhier said the Nats needed to do more to fix the bullpen.

"I need it fixed. Its gotta be fixed, I wanted them to try a lot harder. And I get it if somebody outbids you, you tip the cap at the offer," Rouhier said, before saying he would have liked to see the Nats match Chicago's offer.

While defending manager Davey Martinez for the team's earlier struggles, Rizzo said the bullpen solution may be on the roster. And with Kimbrel on the Cubs, that is where it will have to come from.

But the ever-optimistic general manager remained optimistic. Speaking with The Junkies on Wednesday (before Kimbrel signed), Rizzo added: "I think our bullpen is starting to pitch and feel a little bit more comfortable."

Following those comments, Washington relievers allowed seven hits and three runs over 3 2/3 innings that afternoon.

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