Bullpen Barbie Dolls
The Washington Nationals pitching staff reminds me eerily of my daughters’ doll collections when they were very young. They were lucky enough to have a collection of American Girl dolls. Each one had a special place of reverence in their bedroom. Those were the starters. American Girl dolls came with distinctive names and back stories. Think Scherzer, Strasburg or Zimmermann. The back stories were like long-term contracts.
And then there were the Barbies. They littered my daughters’ toy box. The Barbies came with all manner of deformities. Some were headless. Others legless or armless. Some had been chewed on by the dog. Those were the bullpen pitchers.
Washington has never had a good bullpen for very long. Like high wire acts that assemble with long poles used for balance, they clamber atop one another in wild constructs that totter together waiting for gravity to pull them to the waiting net below. In Washington it is only a matter of time before the collapse.
There was the Matt Capps bullpen, not to be confused with the Mad Caps. Sean Burnett went out onto the wire first, followed by Tyler Clippard and finally Capps himself climbed atop their shoulders. It was a thing of beauty when it worked, but always it was nail biter. Would they fall?? Oh, that looks painful!!
Then there was the famous bullpen of ageless wonder Raphael Soriano. A former grandee who had been the featured performer in other acts in New York City and Atlanta, Soriano came to Washington starting to look every bit like a Barbie. Clippard and Storen went first and then Soriano. Out onto the wire they went as we watched breathlessly.
There crashed of course, sometimes famously like Drew Storen in the 2012 and 2014 playoffs.
What Washington’s bullpen needs to this day of course, is a closer that is more American Girl Doll than Barbie. We are disadvantaged. Our family has never been able to afford one of those American Girl Doll bullpen arms. We are the poor step children who are denied a Craig Kimbrel or a Kenley Janssen. We must watch the wealthy families that live up on the hill from a distance in wonder and adulation. We don’t get a Papelbon or a Soriano until they have been chewed by the dog.
There are two ways to build a bullpen. There is the home grown method, which the Nationals tried with Clippard and Storen. It was a nice effort and it has worked for substantial parts of many seasons, but never in the post-season.
Clippard was definitely a Barbie though. He pitched as often as the peanut vendor that could lob bags across half a row of patrons without missing. In six years as one of the best relievers in the National League, Clippard averaged more than 74 innings per season. He was the Oscar de la Renta Barbie, but a Barbie nonetheless, and when Mike Rizzo worried that his arm might fall off, he was allowed to leave for New York.
One problem that Washington has had with bullpens is the inability to consign the high priced arms to the bullpen even briefly. If you are one of Mike’s American Girl Dolls, then you don’t go slumming with the Barbies. One thing you can take to the bank is that Rizzo will not go looking for a bullpen arm among his Lucas Giolito’s and Eric Fedde’s.
It takes a certain mentality to venture out onto the high wire. Not every pitcher can do it, but there comes a time in every season when there is a fork in the road. The Washington Nationals have a decision to make. Do they take the road most traveled or that other one. Twice in the short week since the Papelbon injury Dusty Baker watched his bullpen torch what could have been a road win. Felipe Rivero and Sammy Solis were the culprits and they both have electric arms that may yet perform in high-leverage situations. But they are not there yet. The Nationals have only one reliever with proven late inning experience: Shawn Kelley. They need another.
It might be time to reward Washington fans with the unexpected thrill of a lights out ninth inning arm. Throw away the Barbie box and take the disadvantaged kids out to the circus, Mike Rizzo. Show them what goes on under the spot light in the Big Apple. It might be worth the money to see the smiles on their little faces as they stream out of the park into the night giddy from those 100 mph fastballs. A dependable one-two-three ninth inning will warm even the coldest heart.