Parting ways with a number of veterans and soon-to-be-free agents opened up spots for a few young, unproven players in the Washington Nationals’ organization to show what they could do given an opportunity down the stretch.
“We got rid of some guys,” manager Davey Martinez told reporters last week.
“But we also had some really young guys that we knew could play and we wanted to see play, and they’re all stepping up and they’re all doing their job.”
With varying degrees of success, a number of the new bullpen arms have been called upon over the last few weeks, and a few of the veterans have done their best to prove there’s still something left or they are back to 100%.
Greg Holland, who struggled with and was released by St. Louis after signing a 1-year/$14M deal with the Cardinals this winter, has posted a 0.98 ERA, eight walks, 23 strikeouts and a .133/.246/.200 line against in 18 1⁄3 innings pitched with the Nationals after agreeing to join Washington’s bullpen.
“He’s been outstanding, he really has,” Martinez said after the 32-year-old came on with the bases loaded and one out last week and struck out back-to-back batters in what was then a 3-3 game with the Chicago Cubs.
“For a guy that started the season not so good to come back and rebound the way he’s done only tells me how much he really loves and has passion for the game, and he’s out there doing everything he can to get outs for us, and two bigs outs, two big strikeouts.”
Sean Doolittle struggled in that game, in just his third appearance back from a two-plus month stint on the Disabled List for a stress reaction in his left foot, but Martinez said he wasn’t particularly surprised with all the time the left-handed closer missed.
“For me,” Martinez explained, “what I always say, those guys spend time on the DL like that, right now he’s going through that Spring Training period, he really is. He’s building up, he threw some pretty decent fastballs today. When he’s good, he’s elevated, but he threw the ball well.”
Acquired from the Oakland A’s before the non-waiver deadline in 2017, Doolittle has club options for 2019 ($6M) and 2020 ($6.5M) or $500K buyouts in each of the last two years remaining on the 5-year/$10.5M deal he signed with the Athletics in 2014.
Considering how much time he missed, and the concerns the issue raised, seeing the left-hander return to form late this season is likely making the Nationals more comfortable that they still have their ninth-inning option secured on a roster that has some significant holes to fill for 2019.
On the year, the 31-year-old southpaw has a 1.70 ERA, four walks, 55 Ks, and a .144/.178/.226 line against in 42 1⁄3 IP.
After allowing three hits and a run in that appearance against the Cubs, Doolittle has tossed two scoreless and hitless.
Holland and Doolittle finished off last Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Braves, after left-hander Tim Collins and right-hander Wander Suero, and Matt Grace bridged the gap from the sixth to the eighth following 5 1⁄3 IP from starter Tanner Roark.
Collins came on for a lefty vs lefty matchup with Ender Inciarte with two on and no one out and struck Inciarte out and Suero got Braves’ pinch hitter Lucas Duda swinging, preserving a 5-2 lead in what ended up a 5-4 win. Suero came back out for another scoreless inning in the seventh, the Grace, Holland, and Doolittle finished Atlanta off, with Doolittle going an inning-plus for the first time since he returned.
“That sixth inning — getting through that sixth inning this year has been tough,” Martinez said, “... and getting guys — when Collins is available and Suero is available, that’s a great combination to get.
“So they came in, they both came in and did their job and that was a key moment of the game.”
Collins signed a minor league contract with the Nationals this winter, was DFA’d and then re-signed after he cleared waivers in July, and he has been back up since mid-August.
In the last month-plus, the veteran left-hander has put up a 3.86 ERA, five walks, 10 Ks, and a .160/.300/.400 line against in seven innings in that stretch, leaving him with a 3.15 ERA, 11 walks, 18 Ks, and a .243/.341/.432 line against in 20 IP in the major this season.
Suero, 27, who signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2010 and debuted earlier this year after he was added to the 40-Man roster last winter, has a 3.18 ERA with seven walks, 22 Ks, and a .262/.323/.417 line against in 19 games and 22 2⁄3 innings pitched since he was called back up at the beginning of August after going up and down between Triple-A and the big leagues all season.
Grace, 29, has established himself as a valuable part of the bullpen this season, pitching on a 1-year/$557,000 deal, and putting up a 2.88 ERA, 13 walks, 47 Ks, and a .241/.288/.352 line against in 56 1⁄3 IP.
There have, of course, been growing pains as well, with some of the young relievers up in the big league bullpen learning on the job.
Jimmy Cordero, who was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in 2016, made his major league debut in August, and has put up an 8.31 ERA with eight walks, 10 Ks, and a rough .328/.423/.475 line against in 16 games and 13 IP.
In Monday night’s game in Miami, the righty came on with a 4-2 lead in the sixth and gave up four straight one-out singles and three runs before he was lifted in favor of Suero, who balked in a run as a two-run lead turned into a one-run deficit in what ended up an 8-5 loss.
Martinez was asked after that game what advice he had for young pitchers like Cordero to try to slow things down when they get out of hand in a hurry (though he wasn’t asked why he left Cordero in so long after he gave up a couple hits).
“For me, they need to take a step back and breathe, don’t let the game speed up,” Martinez said.
“We talk about this all the time. Just limit the damage in those situations, really. But when you come in and walk guys it’s tough, especially when you walk the leadoff hitter, those guys tend to score. But you know what, they’re young and they’re going to learn.”
He did provide a sort-of explanation for sticking with Cordero in that instance, saying that nothing was hit particularly hard.
“Cordero, he gave up a couple cheap hits, but then again I told him, ‘When you have two strikes you’ve got to bury those pitches. There’s no way they should put them in play with your stuff.’ And he’s going to learn, and he’s going to be really good too.”
Koda Glover, 25, returned from a shoulder issue in early August after missing the first four months of the season. He was guilty of walking batters that caused him trouble in Miami.
Glover gave up a single, two walks, an RBI ground ball, and a sac fly that put the Marlins up 7-5 after the Nationals had rallied to tie it.
That outing snapped a streak of 10 appearances and 8 1⁄3 scoreless innings for the righty and left him with a 3.77 ERA, 10 walks, seven Ks, and a .212/.333/.288 line against in 14 1⁄3 innings.
“Glover just walked guys, but he’s been really good,” Martinez said after Tuesday’s win over the Marlins, which saw Grace, Justin Miller, Holland, and Doolittle finish what right-hander Stephen Strasburg started.
Miller, 31, signed a minor league deal this winter, and worked his way up in May and hasn’t looked back, posting a 3.83 ERA, 16 walks, 56 Ks, and a .217/.285/.428 line against over 49 1⁄3 IP.
“Tonight you saw Miller come in and do his thing,” Martinez said, “Grace come in and get the lefties out, Holland has been really, really good, and Doolittle is back, so we get to the 7th, 8th inning, we’ll be in good shape.”
Has Holland shown enough for the Nationals to consider bringing him back in 2019? Picking up Doolittle’s option is a no-brainer, right? How about Collins? Miller?
Where does Sammy Solis fit in going forward?
Suero, Cordero, and Glover are young and affordable and figure to play some role in 2019, but trusting all of them, even after they’ve gotten some experience might be risky.
Austen Williams dominated at Double-A and Triple-A after moving to the bullpen this season though he’s struggled since he was called up (6.43 ERA, five walks, six Ks, .321/.424/.786 line against in seven innings).
The Nationals have the makings of a solid relief corps for 2019. They can bring some of the free agents-to-be back, and give some of the young arms opportunities, but GM Mike Rizzo and Co. in Washington’s front office will likely be back in the market for a proven reliever or two this winter after parting ways with Brandon Kintzler, Shawn Kelley, and Ryan Madson in the last few months.