The 32-year-old right-hander is coming off the best season of his career in 2016, as he posted a career-best 12.4 K/9 and even saw a handful of save chances prior to the Nationals acquisition of Mark Melancon. Shawn Kelley didn't lean on his killer slider quite as hard last season, using it just 43.7 percent of the time (his lowest mark since 2011), but throwing more 92 mph fastballs resulted in a spike in his HR/9 rate, so that might not be a trend that continues into 2017. With Melancon signing with the Giants this offseason, Kelley could head into spring training penciled into the closer spot, but the club's World Series aspirations will probably push them to strengthen the back end of their bullpen, either before Opening Day or at the trade deadline. Even if he eventually returns to a setup role though, Kelley's plus strikeout rate and high-leverage usage should still provide value to owners in deeper formats.
Kelley will compete for the Nationals' closer job in spring training, but manager Dusty Baker expressed concern about his ability to stay healthy all season, The Washington Post reports. "He seems a likely candidate, but we have to see - can his arm sustain?" Baker said. If not, "we'll be looking for somebody else, and be without [Kelley], too. That's the thing you don't want. Then you got to replace two people." On the surface, Kelley's experience and strikeout stuff would seem to make him the favorite to win the job, but with two Tommy John surgeries on his chart and coming off a season in which he made a career-high 67 appearances, the Nats may not want to put too much pressure on the 32-year-old. Given the uncertainty over his role, at the moment Kelley is a safer pick in fantasy league that use saves plus holds as a category, rather than just saves.
Kelley, who walked off the mound during his final appearance of the 2016 season with an apparent arm injury, had tests after that game which revealed no significant issues, MASN Sports reports. Depending on the Nats' plans in free agency, Kelley could be asked to take on a more prominent role in the bullpen for 2017. Following a season in which he posted the best strikeout rate of his career (35.7% K%) and his lowest walk rate since 2009 (4.9%), there's little reason to doubt Kelley's ability to handle the ninth inning if he's given the opportunity to close.
Kelley left Thursday's elimination game against the Dodgers early with an apparent injury, J.P. Hoornstra of the Southern California News Group reports. Kelley had just giving up a two-run triple to Trea Turner before being forced to leave after three pitches. It is unclear what issue was bothering him, but it was severe enough to keep him from continuing.
Kelley came on to record the final out in a 2-1 ballgame Wednesday, earning his seventh save of the season. Left-hander Mark Rzepcynski started the ninth for the Nationals, with regular closer Mark Melancon getting the night off after having pitched the previous two days. Rzepcynski recorded the first two outs before Kelley came on to face the right-handed Maikel Franco, whom he got to ground out. Kelley has been solid in 2016 with a 3.21 ERA, but remains a primary setup man moving forward.
Kelley got his second one-out save in as many days Friday, allowing one hit before striking out Eduardo Nunez to preserve a win over the Giants. As he had the night before, Nats manager Dusty Baker used a left-handed reliever (Felipe Rivero on Friday, Oliver Perez on Thursday) to face a couple of lefties prior to summoning Kelley, which suggests that closing opportunities could depend on matchups until Jonathan Papelbon gets his job back or the team adds a high-profile closer at the trade deadline. Nonetheless, it was Kelley who notched his second straight save Friday and sixth of the season, so he could make for a useful short-term saves play.