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Washington Nationals’ 2021 roster needs: Relief pitcher

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As GM Mike Rizzo and Co. start building the Nationals’ 2021 roster, where should they be focusing?

Division Series - Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros - Game Three Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

In a Federal Baseball roundtable, I mentioned that there were several holes to be filled in the Washington Nationals’ 2021 roster if the team hopes to be competitive. One such hole is in the bullpen. As it currently stands, the Nationals’ relief corps simply isn’t strong enough to be formidable going forward.

If there are any lingering concerns about the offense or starting rotation, we may be able to put those to bed — although the offense deserves its own article or two. But over the course of the 60-game season, Washington had the 8th worst bullpen in baseball by ERA (4.68). This is due in some part to lackluster performance by formerly proven pitchers, like Sean Doolittle, but also to injuries. It should go without saying that some of the team’s woes could possibly be chalked up to the pure strangeness of the year.

This means the Nationals need a formidable presence in the bullpen. Luckily for them, they have options. If the team wants to make some sort of splash in free agency, Liam Hendriks, formerly of the Oakland Athletics, is a good place to start. Hendriks hit free agency after the A’s opted not to extend a qualifying offer to the 31-year-old Aussie pitcher. Oakland isn’t willing to pay big money for personnel, but Washington should be.

A season ago, Hendriks made 24 appearances for the A’s, posting a 1.78 ERA, 1.14 FIP, 0.67 WHIP, and nailed down 14 saves.

The 2020 season marked the second consecutive year that Hendriks posted an ERA/FIP under 2.00, as well as a WHIP under 1.00. In 2019, he saved 25 games for the Athletics — something the Nationals would like to have.

Currently, Daniel Hudson is slotted in the closer’s role and I’m of the belief it would be difficult to convince the Nats’ coaching staff to move him into a different role.

But a few months ago I wrote about why fans should expect lesser performances from Hudson going forward.

The short answer as to why: He was lucky. His BABIP was far below what is normal for pitchers, and was out of line with his past production, as well.

Over 21 games in 2020, Hudson was bad: 6.10 ERA and a -0.4 fWAR.

His BABIP was low again, but his BB/9 was 4.79, while his HR/9 was 2.61. He can be ready to put 2020 behind him all he wants. I’m not convinced it’ll happen.

As for Hendriks, he’s the best relief pitcher in the market and has been steadily building a track record as a reliable closer. The trouble, of course, will be money.

When the Cleveland Indians decided not to pick up Brad Hand’s option and subsequently sent him through waivers, none of the other 29 major league teams picked up Hand’s $10 million option, either, including the Nationals. That could simply be because Hand wasn’t viewed as being worth $10 million — not because teams wouldn’t be willing to pay for the right fit.

What that could also signal to teams and players alike is that nearly everyone will be signed under value this offseason. It’s predicted that teams will still pay the hefty price tag for top-of-the-line players, like Trevor Bauer and JT Realmuto, but that many others will fall through the cracks a bit. Does Hendriks constitute someone who might fall through the cracks? It’s hard to say. The fact of it is while elite bullpen material doesn’t grow on trees, serviceable members can often be found in the bargain bin.

The Athletic contributor and former executive Jim Bowden wrote that he expects Hendrik’s contract to be somewhere in the realm of 3 years/$42 million. This would mean the Nationals would have to be willing to ink another pitcher to a fairly high price tag to go along with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. That figure might be north of what the Nationals want to offer, and therefore might result in them honing in on another pitcher at a lower cost, like Keone Kela.

If the team intends to compete in the short-term, as they seem to be fixated on, then it makes sense to nail down a strong, back-end bullpen candidate for three or so years. The Nationals’ executive staff likely hasn’t received its budget yet, but with all the holes that need to be filled for Washington, Hendriks might be too expensive of a proposition.

But that doesn’t mean the Nationals shouldn’t go after him. If the Nats can convince Hendriks to sign for closer to $10 million AAV, then they should pull the trigger on that deal. Finances will be complicated next season and will largely be contingent on virus news and whether or not fans will be welcomed in 2021. Those are questions that don’t currently have answers. But with everyone feeling the pandemic similarly, it’s a buyer’s market and the Nationals just might be able to get Hendriks under his projected value.