The Washington Nationals are continuing to cut down their roster ahead of Opening Day. One of the remaining competitions will be for the final bullpen spot, and Austen Williams’ dominant spring has made the decision a tricky one.
In a bullpen that is likely to contain seven relievers to begin the season, Sean Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough and Matt Grace seem like locks. Justin Miller and Tony Sipp also appear to have their spots relatively secure after getting into game shape.
That leaves one spot up for grabs, and it seems to be a competition between Williams and Wander Suero. At the end of 2018, Suero would’ve been the safe bet based on how each performed in the majors.
Suero posted a 3.59 ERA last year with 47 strikeouts in 47.2 innings, while also displaying impressive multi-inning versatility. Meanwhile, Williams held a 5.59 ERA in a September cup of coffee in which he looked very home run prone.
Despite the shaky stats, Nationals manager Dave Martinez seemed to be impressed by the right-hander in his brief spell with the team.
“Austen did a great job, first time up in the big leagues,” Martinez said after an early spring workout. “He got a little confidence going into Spring Training this year and he feels like he could help us.”
But the poor results in a small sample size at the top level don’t take away from the outstanding season that he had. The 2018 campaign was his first season as a full-time reliever after previously underwhelming as a starter. That allowed his stuff to play up in a big way.
His fastball ticked up to the mid 90s due to the shorter appearances, allowing his strong curveball and changeup to better complement his heater. That led him to post a 1.19 ERA in 32 appearances in the minors as well as an 11.8 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9.
Thankfully this spring, he’s looked much more like the pitcher we saw in the minors than the one who struggled in the majors. In eight appearances, he’s yet to allow an earned run on two hits in 7.2 innings while striking out seven and not allowing a single walk.
“[Williams] honed in on his mechanics and consistency with throwing strikes, which is a big part of what we wanted him to do,” Martinez told Mark Zuckerman of MASN Sports. “He’s had an unbelievable spring. I really believe that he’s only going to get better.”
While the team has been making roster cuts left, right and center, Williams remains with the team as they head north for an exhibition game against the Yankees. After his excellent spring, he may have given the team no choice but to keep him on to start the season.
And while his main competition, Suero, is still with the team as well, his stat line this spring doesn’t quite stack up to Williams’. The Dominican right-hander has allowed a pair of earned runs in 6.2 innings, striking out six and walking two along the way.
Williams just appears to have a lot going for him ahead of the decision in the coming days.
The first obstacle for him would have been the roster logistics. But both Suero and Williams are already on the 40-man roster and have the same number of options remaining, so that’s a non-factor in the decision.
Williams has also excelled in multi-inning duty down in the minor leagues, where 25 of his 32 appearances resulted in more than an inning’s worth of work, and he was able to strike out multiple batters in 21 of those multi-inning showings.
Keeping Williams on the major league roster might also be a good message to send to your players. It would reinforce the fact that you can win roster spots with your performance down in Florida, even if the result of the games means little.
There isn’t really a wrong choice here with both pitchers clearly capable in middle relief. So in the end, maybe the Nationals go with the slightly more known quantity in Suero over Williams. That would be understandable.
But regardless of whether Williams eventually makes the team, he’s made a lasting impression on the front office and coaching staff. He’ll be relied on at some point this season and has a great chance to establish himself at the big league level.