Mike Rizzo

Can Mike Rizzo fix the Nats’ beleaguered bullpen?

The Nats firing Derek Lilliquist won’t solve their woes

The Washington Nationals are underachieving. As of press time, the Nats are six games under .500, and sitting in fourth place in the NL East. Don’t get me wrong, we’re accustomed to the Nats underachieving. It’s just that they usually wait until the postseason to break their fans’ hearts.

On the bright side, if they fall out of the race early in the season, it could spare fans the heartache of another poor showing in October. Somehow though, I don’t think that’s what Nationals fans had in mind entering the 2019 season. This year was supposed to be about Life After Bryce. Here was general manager Mike Rizzo’s chance to show the world that this team could go further without their enigmatic young star. So far, all they’ve proven is that they can underachieve without him as well as with him.

So what exactly has gone wrong and who exactly is to blame? Well, everything has gone wrong, and apparently Derek Lilliquist is to blame. At least that’s what we were lead to believe last week when the Washington front office fired Lilliquist as pitching coach, making him the scapegoat for their early season struggles.

I won’t pretend to know whether Lilliquist is a great pitching coach. But don’t insult my intelligence by telling me that he is to blame for the Nats slow start. He sure isn’t to blame for the fact that they’ve only scored more than three runs twice in the last 12 games.

The knock against Washington last year was that the bullpen was incapable of bridging the gap from the starting staff to Sean Doolittle, who has been great at the back end of the pen since his arrival. The same can be said about this year’s group of relievers. From an ERA standpoint, the team ranks last in the National League.

How is it possible that a pitching staff led by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Sean Doolittle can be so bad? The answer is pretty simple. General Manager Mike Rizzo opted against spending big on proven bullpen guys this year and instead decided to rebuild it on the cheap.

Wander Suero (6.92 ERA) and Matt Grace (6.75 ERA) were both given larger roles and have failed miserably. Joe Ross was converted to reliever and currently sports an ERA over 12. Even the guys that they did spend free agent dollars on (Trevor Rosenthal and Tony Sipp) have been horrible. Rosenthal is currently in extended spring training attempting to get over the yips. Sipp joins the other relievers mentioned in the exclusive club of pitchers with an ERA north of 6.00.

Of all the decisions made in regard to the pen, the acquisition of Kyle Barraclough has been the lone bright spot. Maybe Derek Lilliquist deserves some blame for the fact that so many guys have collectively underachieved. But it’s more likely that this collection just isn’t that good.

This all points directly back to Rizzo, and not the pitching coach. I am not suggesting that the team should have spent wildly on Craig Kimbrel, but that was an option. I’m not saying that the Nationals should’ve ponied up in a big trade for Edwin Diaz, but they could have. What I do know is that the handling of the bullpen, from a personnel standpoint, has been a little shaky during the Rizzo tenure.

Think back to the decision to replace Drew Storen as closer, once for Rafael Soriano and once for Jonathan Papelbon. Both decisions were questionable at the time. But in both instances, the fan base realized that the moves were in line with Rizzo’s aggressive nature. They just didn’t work out so well. Maybe the blowback from those moves caused the general manager to stand pat this offseason. Whatever his reasoning may be, it appears as though Rizzo has pushed the wrong buttons again.

I do not blame the Nationals recent postseason failures on Mike Rizzo. He is, after all, the same man who is responsible for putting together the starting rotation that has been one of the best in baseball over the last six years or so. He presided over the Juan Soto and Victor Robles signings. He can clearly draft, identify and develop young talented players.

As a fan of the Nats, I wouldn’t trade Rizzo for any GM in baseball. I just need him to figure out the solution to the bullpen, quickly. So no, I’m not saying that Rizzo should be fired for his inability to roster a good bullpen. I’m just saying that neither should Derek Lilliquist.

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Tom Hoggard is sports director/media consultant at East Carolina Radio. He hosts the Outer Banks Sports Report on 98.1 The Score Monday through Friday from 7 to 9 a.m.

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