Washington’s Nationals acquired reliever Ryne Harper from the Minnesota Twins last winter, in return for minor league pitcher Hunter McMahon, and on Wednesday Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo and Co. in the D.C. front office signed 2014 Twins’ 4th Round pick Sam Clay to a major league contract.
Clay, a 27-year-old left-hander, selected with the 110th overall pick in the 2014 Draft, pitched for six seasons in the Twins’ system without making it to the majors, so signing a big league deal with the Nationals was a surprise and an exciting opportunity for the reliever.
In 2020, he was part of the Twins’ 60-Man Pool for the 60-game COVID campaign, and he was included on the club’s taxi squad, but he never got a call to make his MLB debut.
Now the possibility seems more real.
“In the past it’s always been just something off in the distance,” Clay told reporters during a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s not been something that’s within grasp. And now getting this contract, it’s within grasp and time for me to take full advantage.”
Clay and Harper were teammates at Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Rochester in the Twins’ system in 2018-19 before Harper was moved to the Nationals, and Clay said he was excited to be reunited with his one-time teammate, but didn’t want to reach out to him to reconnect until his new deal with Washington was official.
“I haven’t texted Ryne yet,” Clay explained, “just because I wanted everything to be signed, sealed, delivered and then I would contact him and see how he’s doing.
“But I’ve had a lot of friends and family reach out recently and over the last couple days.”
“My phone has been blowing up just from a lot of friends and family,” he said of those who have reached out to him to congratulate him on the latest development in his career.
“It really is incredible to see the amount of support that I have. It’s very heartwarming. I can’t describe how incredible it is.”
In his six minor league seasons in the Twins’ organization, Clay went (24–24) with 20 saves and a 3.97 ERA in 187 games (36 starts) and 405 1⁄3 innings pitched, and in 2019, the sinker-balling lefty had the highest ground ball rate (71.3%) in all of minor league baseball.
He avoided giving up home runs as well, with the Nationals noting in their press release on the signing that he didn’t give up any in 2019, and has allowed, “... just one home run in [188 2⁄3] innings pitched (122 games) since the start of the 2017 season.”
Given the success he’s had on the mound in recent seasons, Clay said he didn’t see a need to change things up in his offseason workouts this winter, though he acknowledged that it might be altered somewhat to address the fact that his workload this season was down from previous years since he spent the summer at the Twins’ Alternate Training Site in St. Paul, MN rather than with a minor league affiliate.
“I’ve had success with it in the past,” he said of his program, “so I don’t feel like there’s really any change that needs to happen.
“There might be a slight change — with — I didn’t throw as many innings as I typically do during the season during this COVID season. I typically throw around 60-65 innings in a minor league season, so I think I threw around 30 on the St. Paul side, so I’ll probably start throwing a little bit sooner than I normally would, but regarding workouts and conditioning and all of that, that will remain basically the same. I’m hoping to work out at Georgia Tech where I went to school.
“Work out with Matt Wieters, because he went to Tech and I see him there a good bit, a lot of professional baseball players go and work out there, it’s definitely a very good program that I’ve enjoyed for these past 5-6 years.”
After that he’ll make the trip to West Palm Beach, assuming Spring Training is back on as it as been in the past, without restrictions, etc., and he will take part in his first camp with his new club.
Clay said he’s ready for anything the Nationals ask him to do as far as his role, having done it all before.
“I’ve done pretty much everything you can do in the pitching world. I think my most recent start was an opener-type deal. So that was something I’ve done once or twice in the past,” Clay said.
“But I think in 2019 I did a two-inning open, I think we were playing the Cubs in Double-A and I had a lot of success there, but ... I’ve never been a specialist, a left-handed specialist. I’ve always come in and I’ve thrown to lefties, righties, switch hitters.
“Anybody and everybody in any situation. I’ve always been the guy that has pitched in high-leverage situations. A lot of seventh, eighth, ninth inning.
“I’ve closed a lot of games, I’ve gotten a lot of saves, I’ve gotten a lot of wins when we’re tied in the ninth, tenth, eleventh innings.
“I’ve pitched extra innings, started multiple innings, dirty innings, clean innings, I’ve done literally everything you can do in a pitching role.”