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The Nationals bullpen still needs somebody like David Robertson

Report from Washington reflects escalating tension after series of blown leads

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MLB: Chicago White Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On one hand, the Washington Nationals don’t need a closer — at least at this point. They hold baseball’s second-biggest divisional lead at 8 12 games. There’s a bigger gap between first and second in the NL East than there is first and last place in the AL Central, where the White Sox are in the cellar yet only trail by six games.

On the other hand, the Washington Nationals need bullpen help immediately. That’s at least if Barry Svrluga’s article in the Washington Post accurately summarizes the severity of the present tension, rather than characterizing an extreme swing that will dissipate.

The Nationals are 34-5 when carrying a lead into the ninth inning, which sounds good until realizing that the rest of the league averages 1.38 losses at this point under the same circumstances. Here’s a better stat — they’ve given up more runs than anybody after the seventh inning, and Svrluga explains a too-typical weekend:

Handed a 3-1 ninth-inning lead Saturday, the bullpen delivered a 6-3, 11-inning loss to Texas. Handed a 1-1 game in the eighth Sunday, the bullpen delivered a 5-1 loss to the Rangers. Handed a 9-6 eighth-inning lead Monday, the bullpen delivered an 11-10 loss to the Braves. The list of relievers who were charged with earned runs in those three games is nearly all-encompassing: Jacob Turner, Matt Albers, Perez, Treinen, Glover and Kelley. Only Enny Romero, who added two scoreless frames Tuesday, appeared and wasn’t charged with a run.

That 11-10 loss turned on a clash between a couple of familiar faces:

Svrluga goes on to say the repeated bullpen collapses add stress to an offense that is already leading the National League in runs per game.

Another established position player noted that, on more than one occasion, the Nats have come off the field in the middle innings, already with five or six runs on the board, and Baker has exhorted them with something along the lines of, “Let’s get some more.” The need is implied.

“That drives us crazy,” the player said. “Get some more? Come on. We’ve done our job.”

The problem is Mike Rizzo’s to solve, but he would’ve solved it twice over if it weren’t for the Lerner Family. His pursuits of David Robertson and Greg Holland both made it to the owner’s desk, but both potential deals were nixed.

This is good news for the White Sox, because the deal that the teams reportedly had in place during the offseason looks favorable to the Nationals now:

The Nationals, according to executives with direct knowledge of the deal, were to send 19-year-old left-hander Jesus Luzardo and minor league infielder Drew Ward to the White Sox for Robertson, with the White Sox eating about half of the $25 million remaining in his contract. But the deal got hung up over money.

Ward is having a decent season as a 22-year-old at Double-A Harrisburg, while Luzardo has yet to pitch a pro game (he slid to the third round in the 2016 draft because of Tommy John surgery). This would have been an unexciting-but-OK deal if the White Sox were primarily motivated to get out from under Robertson’s contract before his decline phase took hold. That was a real threat, what with the jump in his walk rate and blown saves, as well as the offseason knee surgery.

But now that Robertson’s year is taking the shape of a bounce-back season with improvements across all key categories — and now that he’s 212 months less of a commitment for the Lerner family — the White Sox’ position should be bolstered a bit. I don’t think there’s a much larger ceiling on the return, but maybe any cash involved has more buying power.

The Nationals drafted pitchers with nine of their first 10 picks, although it doesn’t look like their top picks will/can be fast-tracked, and for multiple infractions reasons. It wouldn’t surprise me to see this particular rumor resurface once selections are signed and assigned, because it still makes way too much sense for both clubs. It already reached the ownership level once, and the factors driving the originally proposed deal remain stubborn.