Earlier this morning, Ken Rosenthal from Fox Sports reported that the Nationals are interested in free agent closer Grant Balfour. Balfour, who turned 36 in December, had agreed to terms on a two year, $15 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles earlier this offseason before a reported knee and wrist injury caused Balfour to fail his physical. One might wonder why the Nationals would even be considering Grant Balfour, since just last season, the Nationals added veteran closer Rafael Soriano to a bullpen that already had two pitchers with extensive closer experience in Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.
Since becoming the Oakland A’s closer in 2012, Balfour has been one of the best closers in baseball, converting 93% of his save opportunities. His 2.56 ERA and 150 ERA+ put him towards the top among qualified closers over the past two seasons. While Balfour flourished in Oakland, Soriano struggled in DC. On first glance, Soriano’s numbers don’t appear to be that bad, with a respectable 3.11 ERA and 43 saves, which ranked second in the National League. However, when you dig deeper, Soriano’s struggles become more apparent. Soriano’s 1.23 WHIP is his highest since becoming a reliever, and his K/9 was the lowest it has ever been. The velocity on both his fastball and his slider were down almost a full mile per hour, and his slider had less movement in 2013 then in any other season, making Soriano more hittable. Soriano no longer has the stuff he had in 2010, when he came 8th in the Cy Young voting. If the Nationals are looking at the same metrics we are, they likely don’t feel confident about having Soriano as their only option at closer in 2014.
The Nationals already have two players in their bullpen who could serve as the closer in the event that Soriano melts down; Tyler Clippard. Over the past three years, Clippard has been among the most valuable relievers in baseball — since 2011, he has a 2.60 ERA, and has thrown 232.0 innings in relief, the most in baseball. But the Nationals have been reluctant to move the one-time all-star from the setup role. Storen is an even riskier proposition; his struggles in the first half of 2013 have been well-documented (a 5.95 ERA before being demoted to AAA), and his fastball has lost both zip (95.1 to 93.8 MPH) and effectiveness (it was a negative pitch in 2013) from his 43-save 2011. But it would be unwise for the Nationals to trade Storen now, at the point where his value would be lowest — remember, Storen was the centerpiece in a near-deal for Denard Span just two years ago.
With Balfour in the fold, the Nationals will have a lot more flexibility in their bullpen. Balfour is unlikely to seek more than the 2 year, $15 million deal the Orioles reneged on, making him one of the cheaper options among upper-echelon relievers. And signing Balfour doesn’t necessarily mean that the Nationals have to trade Drew Storen either — they could always move Storen to a sixth/seventh inning role for this season, with Balfour and Clippard becoming the primary setup men. Balfour is an unlikely signing for the Nationals, but adding him would strengthen a strength, making the Nationals bullpen one of baseball’s best.