Mike Rizzo has a reputation for making deals, and he didn’t disappoint on Wednesday; the Washington Nationals team president acquired three relievers to bolster his club’s bullpen in preparation for a playoff race.
The Toronto Blue Jays’ Daniel Hudson will be joined by now-former Seattle Mariners Roenis Elías and Hunter Strickland on Friday ahead of the Nats’ weekend series with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Although the trio wasn’t considered to be among the best relievers available, Washington’s weak farm system and desire to remain under the luxury tax threshold handicapped its ability to add big-name players.
That being said, the Nats’ bullpen has been so bad this year that even average arms would be an upgrade over most of the club’s late-inning options. Although they could’ve used a fifth starter, most of the Nats’ roster is loaded with talent and certainly has the potential to make a playoff run with a mediocre-but-not-so-glaringly-bad bullpen.
The biggest addition was Hudson, who will likely be given an opportunity to handle primary eighth-inning duties after compiling a 3.00 ERA, 1.271 WHIP and 9.0 K/9 in 48 innings with Toronto this season. A 32-year-old journeyman who will be joining his fifth team in four years, Hudson is enjoying easily his best season out of the bullpen of his career — as evidenced by a 151 ERA+ that ranks among the top 20 relievers in the American League.
As Washington has often done with Sean Doolittle and its other back-end relievers, Hudson will be relied on to pitch multiple days in a row. He’s done that seven times this season, allowing five earned runs in 6.1 innings in the second game of back-to-back appearances — although three of those runs came in his fourth game of the year. Hudson hasn’t pitched three straight games since June 5-7, 2018, with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
He has a lengthy injury history, highlighted by two Tommy John surgeries in consecutive years that limited him to just 12 appearances between 2012 and 2014. A former starter, Hudson moved to the bullpen after the surgeries and has lowered his ERA every season since. However, forearm tightness landed the right-hander on the Disabled List in August last season and kept him out for the duration of the Dodgers’ World Series run.
Hudson has remained healthy this season and, as a rental, won’t pose any problems for Washington long term. But the Nationals would be wise not to lean on him too hard to help preserve his surgically repaired arm (appearances in both halves of a double header aren’t recommended).
The Nationals were rumored to be heavily interested in acquiring a lefty, and they got one in Elías — although he comes with a caveat. Elías has reverse platoon splits, holding righties to a .579 OPS this season while allowing left-handed hitters to accrue an eye-popping mark of .990. His career splits are much more even (.720 OPS for righties, .718 OPS for lefties), but if he replaces one of the incumbent southpaws Matt Grace or Tony Sipp on the roster then manager Davey Martinez may still use him in a lefty-specialist role.
But Elías actually profiles to be one of the team’s most effective pitchers against righties. His .238 opponents’ on-base percentage by right-handed hitters would be the lowest among Nationals relievers this season. It’ll be interesting to see how Martinez uses the Cuban native and whether he regresses to his career splits or continues struggling against lefties.
The most interesting acquisition is Strickland, the former San Francisco Giants closer who infamously beaned Bryce Harper in 2017 for hitting mammoth home runs off him in the 2014 NLDS. Strickland will now be donning the Curly W looking to salvage his season after a lat strain forced him to miss four months.
Although he’s never been much of a strikeout pitcher, Strickland has had some very effective seasons. From 2015 to 2018, he averaged nearly 55 innings a year with a 3.00 ERA and 1.210 WHIP. And despite Harper’s postseason heroics, he’s actually been excellent at limiting home runs with a career HR/9 of 0.71.
Strickland will likely be thrust into a battle with Rodney and Wander Suero for a sixth- or seventh-inning role, but his ceiling is probably higher than both of them. If Strickland can regain his form, the Nationals may have found themselves a steal by acquiring him with another two years of control after this season.
They weren’t flashy moves, but it’s easy to see that Washington valued quantity over quality given its circumstances. While these moves don’t necessarily signal ownership is all in on winning a World Series in 2019, they’re much-needed reinforcements for a team that’s been one of baseball’s best since the end of May.