Arguably the weakest part of the Washington Nationals right now as we head into the 2017 season is their bullpen. Earlier in the week, the team added a veteran relief pitcher in an effort to improve upon this area.
On Tuesday, the Nationals signed reliever Joe Blanton to a one-year, $4 million contract. Even though spring training has already begun, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo felt as though his bullpen needed another arm.
Blanton has plenty of Major League experience. The 36-year-old right-hander has had stints with the Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Angels, Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers. A starting pitcher for most of his career, he was converted to a reliever a few years ago. Blanton pitched well for the Dodgers last season. In 75 games, he went 7-2 with a 2.48 ERA.
Now that he has signed with Washington, Blanton will join a bullpen that contains plenty of uncertainties. This past offseason, the Nationals lost Mark Melancon to the San Francisco Giants in free agency. Last season, Melancon became the Nationals closer after coming over from the Pirates in a trade late in July. After Melancon left, the Nationals made an effort to try and sign closer Kenley Jansen. However, he ended up re-signing with the Dodgers.
Right now, the Nationals do not have a definite closer going into the 2017 season. The team signed Joe Nathan to a minor league deal back in January. Although Nathan has 377 career saves, he is not the same closer that he once was. He had Tommy John surgery for the second time in his career in April of 2015. Even though he has since recovered from the surgery, it is unrealistic to expect Nathan to return to top form. If he performs well in spring training, there is a good chance that he will earn a spot somewhere in the Nationals bullpen.
The most likely player to emerge as the Nationals closer is Shawn Kelley. In 2016, Kelley went 3-2 with an ERA of 2.64 ERA in 67 games. He also earned seven saves. Because of the lack of realistic options, there is a good chance that Kelley will be Washington’s closer come Opening Day.
Blanton will definitely have an important role in the bullpen. It is unlikely that he will compete to be the closer, but will probably have some kind of late-inning relief role. It will be up to Nationals manager Dusty Baker to decide how he wants to utilize Blanton.
At the very least, Blanton gives the Nationals a solid veteran option out of the bullpen. This area of the team still is not exactly strong, but it did just get a little better.