The Washington Nationals have struggled to find stability among their relief corps all season long, but there may be a solution already waiting on the 40-man roster.
James Bourque has six saves and a 2.45 ERA at Double-A Harrisburg so far this season and could be on the cusp of the majors after Aníbal Sánchez left Thursday’s game with a hamstring strain. Washington added Bourque to its 40-man roster over the offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft after he enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2018.
The University of Michigan product was drafted in the 14th round in 2014 as a starting pitcher despite working almost exclusively out of the buƒllpen during his final season in Ann Arbor. He struggled in the rotation during his first year of professional ball and hit a road block in his development when he missed all of 2015 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Following two more disappointing seasons as a starter at Single-A Hagerstown, Bourque moved to the bullpen in 2018 and revitalized his career. The right-hander posted a sparkling 1.70 ERA between High-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, relying primarily on his fastball/curveball combination — both of which are scored as 60-grade pitches on the 20-80 scale by MLB Pipeline.
“I think, first full year as a reliever, I had to learn some things first couple weeks, first month or so, and then got into a routine and kind of built some confidence and then carried that throughout the year,” Bourque told reporters at the team’s Winterfest over the offseason.
In addition to joining the team’s extended roster, Bourque also earned an invite to the MLB club’s Spring Training camp. While he was among the team’s first round of cuts, Bourque went back to Double-A and has continued producing out of the bullpen.
Meanwhile at the major-league level, the Nationals have had one of the worst bullpens in baseball. They entered play Friday with the highest bullpen ERA in the league at 6.20 and have seen a carousel of relievers take the mound in late innings only to blow close leads and put games out of reach.
With Sánchez likely heading to the 10-Day Injured List to rehab his left hamstring, the Nationals could stretch Erick Fedde back out as a starter and call up Bourque to fill the empty roster spot. Trevor Rosenthal is still on a rehab assignment after landing on the IL with a viral infection and there’s been no timetable for either Tony Sipp’s or Koda Glover’s returns from their respective injuries, so there are no other corresponding pitcher moves that would need to be made.
Even if Austen Williams (shoulder) is ready to return to the mound, he still has three options remaining and hasn’t exactly impressed with 12 earned runs allowed in 10 career innings. Bourque stands out among the other options of Kyle McGowin, Austin Voth and Tanner Rainey, making him a perfect candidate to help stabilize Washington’s bullpen.
The Nationals are in dire need of bullpen help and given both their financial restraints and place in the standings, it’s not likely to come in the form of an outside addition. Bourque is already on the 40-man and Washington has a history of calling players up straight from Double-A.
He’s been one of the top arms in the Nationals’ entire farm system since the start of last year. It’s time for Washington to take a chance on him and see how his repertoire plays at the major-league level.