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Vesting option could allow Washington Nationals’ closer Sean Doolittle to become a free agent after this season

As the 2019 season heats up for the Nationals, it will be worth monitoring a vesting option in Sean Doolittle’s contract that could allow him to be a free agent...

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Lately, the performances of Sean Doolittle have drawn plenty of attention as the Washington Nationals’ closer has looked a little off in some of his recent save opportunities.

On Friday night against the New York Mets, the left-hander was staked to a three-run lead before he unraveled as the hosts staged a dramatic comeback win. He did at least rebound with a 1-2-3 save in the series finale to help prevent a potentially disastrous sweep.

Doolittle then recorded a hard-fought save in the first of three games against the Cincinnati Reds on Monday, his 52nd appearance of the year. It was also his league-leading 48th game finished this season, a stat that could become key as the season wraps up.

Currently, the Nationals have a $6.5 million team option for their closer for the 2020 season. As things stand, it’s an option that would almost certainly be picked up.

However, Doolittle’s contract has a vesting option that would convert that team option to a mutual option — where both team and player would have to agree to activate it — should he finish a combined 100 games between 2018 and 2019.

After finishing 35 games last year, it looked extremely unlikely that Doolittle would hit triple digits over the two years. But with 48 games finished in the team’s first 118 games, the closer is now on course for 66 games finished this year, which would vest the option.

A $6.5 million salary would be a bargain for a reliever of Doolittle’s caliber, meaning he would likely decline his side of the mutual option.

This offseason, Zach Britton got a $13 million annual average value from the Yankees, while Andrew Miller got an AAV of $12.5 million from the Cardinals. That would be the ballpark that Doolittle could hope for were he to hit the open market, making it an easy decision.

This means the looming games finished milestone may leave the Nationals in a potentially tricky spot moving forward.

In the thick of a postseason race, the Nats are unlikely to try to intentionally manipulate Doolittle’s games finished. They need all hands on deck and overall, he is still their best reliever.

While there have been some recent stumbles that have at least caused a little concern among fans, the closer’s role still clearly belongs to the left-hander until further notice.

“If Doo is available, Doo is our closer,” Dave Martinez explained to reporters after Monday’s game. “I’ve got all the confidence in the world in him.”

“We talked about this, people were talking about this in the New York series, guess what? He came in Sunday and did a great job, came in today and held down the fort.”

“I’m sure he’s been through this before, and to me it’s no big deal, but he’s our closer.”

That being said, Martinez clearly isn’t opposed to the idea of using others to lighten the workload.

At the trade deadline, the Nationals acquired Daniel Hudson, Roenis Elías, and Hunter Strickland.

All of them have recorded saves this year and could make fine fill-in closers for the day.

“When they first got here I talked to them, I said, due to the way we do things here, you might have close out games,” Martinez said of his new relievers, “[because] Sean doesn’t pitch every day, or every time there’s a closing situation there, and they’re all for it.”

It was a point that he reinforced after watching the left-hander walk the tightrope on Monday.

“If Doo needs a day, he’ll get a day, and then we go somewhere else,” Martinez said.

It’s a fine balancing act between needing your best reliever out of there with the game on the line, making sure he’s well-rested for a potential postseason run, and keeping an eye on the games he finishes which could see him walk out the door at season’s end.

Even if Doolittle did trigger his vesting option, there’s still a chance that he could leverage it into a new deal to stay in Washington, a city he’s often spoken about fondly, instead of depart.

“I love the city. My wife and I, we’re so happy [in D.C.],” Doolittle said before last year’s All-Star Game. “Even though we’d visited it several times, we never really made it much past the monuments, the museums, and the National Mall and stuff like that, that’s stuff is awesome, but there is a whole other world to D.C.”

And if he wants to stay with a contender, he knows that the Nationals are committed to winning...

“I know I’m very grateful, the guys in the clubhouse are very grateful that this is a team that tries to win year in and year out,” Doolittle explained to Grant and Danny of 106.7 The Fan back in Spring Training.

There’s also the fact that the free agency isn’t the haven for players that it was a few years ago.

“I think it’s scary, man,” Doolittle said of the free agent market. “I definitely think it’s something that we’ve obviously been keeping a close eye on over the last few years.”

“There’s more teams heading into Spring Training that are competing for the first draft pick in the draft next season than there are [teams] that are trying to make a run at the World Series.”

As Doolittle continues to creep toward his career-high in several categories, it might be worth monitoring how many games he finishes the rest of the way as it could have a huge impact on the team’s bullpen in 2020 and beyond.