After months of speculation, Thursday the Washington Nationals addressed a big weakness, officially signing reliever Joe Blanton to a 1-year pact worth $4 million. The deal comes with another $1 million in incentives and allows Washington to defer $3 million into the future. His addition will bolster the right-handed pitching depth in Washington’s bullpen in addition to Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and Koda Glover. In a corresponding move, Spencer Kieboom was designated for assignment to clear a space on the 40-man roster for Blanton.
Blanton, 36, was surprisingly still available after a strong 2016 for the Dodgers, posting a 2.48 ERA and 80 strikeouts against only 55 hits and 26 walks allowed over 80 innings pitched. After nearly 10 years working as a starter, Blanton has had a career transformation since moving to the bullpen. Blanton has abandoned his sinker, which he used quite often as a starter, and now relies on his upper-80 slider and 91-92mph fastball, with the occasional curveball and changeup to get hitters out. As a reliever Blanton does three things well, namely he strikes out nearly a batter per inning, while limiting his walks and home runs allowed.
The advanced metrics believe Blanton is a quality reliever that outpitched his numbers in 2016, as his .240 BABIP and 82% left on-base percentage last season are extremely difficult to achieve and replicate. Blanton’s 2.92 and 3.33 FIP and 3.20 and 3.43 DRA the past two years say he is a strong option working as a setup man, exactly how he will be used in Washington. Assuming he stays healthy, Blanton should serve as a key piece in the back of Washington’s bullpen in the 7th and 8th innings this season.
Unfortunately the team was forced to designate the 25-year-old Kieboom, Washington’s 5th round selection from Clemson University in 2012. Drafted with the reputation as an outstanding defender, Kieboom has soft hands, excellent blocking skills and has thrown out 34% of attempted base stealers in his pro career. Unfortunately his offense has not caught up to his defense, as Kieboom hit only .230/.324/.314 last season in 309 at-bats. A right-handed hitter, Kieboom has a knack from drawing walks and pull side power, but his mediocre results at Double-A has most people questioning his hitting ability.
In addition, Kieboom found himself in an organizational roster crunch, as Washington has three major league capable catchers in Matt Wieters, Derek Norris and Jose Lobaton. In the minors, Triple-A Syracuse projects to have Pedro Severino and Jhonatan Solano behind the plate, while Double-A should see Raudy Read as their starting catcher. This left Kieboom as the projected backup at Double-A and without enough playing time to improve his offensive skills. He has the potential to be a major league backup due to his defensive prowess, but the bat makes him a probable career Triple-A up-and-down type player.
Overall it is difficult to quibble with this move, as Washington outwaited an unusual free agent market and capitalized on an opportunity to acquire an overlooked reliever at a quality price. Certainly Blanton does not resolve the question of who will close, but he gives the team another veteran pitcher and one who has proven to be an asset as a setup man. Prior to this move, Washington was counting on Treinen and Glover to fill the 7th and 8th inning roles: no question both have the ability, but Blanton solidifies this spot and lengthens the bullpen’s depth.
The upgrade to Blanton from a less reliable option like Trevor Gott or Joe Nathan has to be worth 0.5-1.0 wins this season and should allow manager Dusty Baker to sleep easier at night. In addition I would expect Washington to trade Kieboom in the next several days for something of value, making this acquisition even more valuable to the organization. While not sexy, these are the exact type of underrated moves winning teams make each offseason that bolster the depth and talent of their roster. Blanton is an ideal fit for Washington’s bullpen and came at a discount price, which makes this one of my favorite Hot Stove moves this offseason.
NatsGM Overall Grade -> A- / B+