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Washington Nationals Spring Training 2020 Preview: Nats add to bullpen mix after tough 2019 for relief corps

Last year’s relief corps imploded early in the season. Did GM Mike Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office do enough to ensure that won’t be an issue in 2020?

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World Series - Houston Astros v Washington Nationals - Game Four Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

“Last year, they talked a lot about the bullpen,” Aníbal Sánchez told reporters earlier this winter, when the veteran starter was asked about the Washington Nationals signing Will Harris and Daniel Hudson.

“This year we’ve got an amazing bullpen,” Sánchez said. “So let’s see what’s going to happen in Spring Training and in the season.

“Last year we got a bad start and we finished strong, so probably we can repeat that, right?” the veteran starter asked rhetorically.

But everyone involved would probably rather avoid the bullpen struggles that plagued the eventual World Series champs at the start of the 2019 campaign.

“We want to finish strong, that’s for sure,” Sánchez said.

In the first half of last season, Nationals’ relievers, as a group, posted a combined 6.08 ERA (highest in the National League), a 4.72 FIP (the 3rd highest), a .273 Batting Average Against (also the highest amongst NL clubs), a 1.55 WHIP (the NL’s worst), and .332 BABIP-against (the NL’s highest).

In the second half, following some bullpen additions at the trade deadline (Hudson, Hunter Strickland, and Roenis Elías), Nats’ relievers put up a 5.90 ERA as a group (the NL’s second-highest), with a 5.19 FIP (3rd highest), a .251 BAA (4th highest), a 1.40 WHIP (the 5th highest), and a .287 BABIP (10th).

Though they managed to win it all in the end, addressing the bullpen issues this winter was high on the Nationals’ list as the offseason began, and GM Mike Rizzo and Co. went to work adding Harris, Hudson (after he became a free agent), Kyle Finnegan (on big league deal), and Ryne Harper (in a trade with the Minnesota Twins) to the mix alongside the likes of Elías, Strickland, Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, closer Sean Doolittle, and starters who don’t make the rotation (Erick Fedde, Austin Voth, or Joe Ross).

With an eight-man bullpen likely with 26-man rosters this season, there will be a healthy bit of competition in Spring Training to see who travels north to start the season.

“When you put Doolittle and Harris and Hudson and Strickland,” Rizzo told reporters, listing the options he’s providing manager Davey Martinez, “... and the emergence of Rainey and Suero, along with Doolittle and Elías, I think that you’re coming into the season with a solid bullpen.”

“This organization,” Doolittle said at WinterFest, “I have to say, since I’ve been here, can’t say enough about the job they do each offseason giving us pieces to win, so it’s come together really, really well.”

“We got Huddy now, we’ve got Harris, we’ve got some other guys that I think are ready to take big steps forward,” Doolittle added. “I think Rainey — I’m excited to see where Strickland is at after all the work that he was doing throughout the whole World Series run, he was working his butt off to make some adjustments, so I’m excited to see where he’s at. Elías is back, he’s going to be healthy. We’re going to have options. I think we’re going to be able to do a better job of sharing the load and keeping everybody ready to go 1-0 ever day.”

The addition of Harris, (the now-former Houston Astros’ reliever who put up a 1.50 ERA, a 3.15 FIP, 14 walks (2.10 BB/9), 62 Ks (9.30 K/9), and a .196/.246/.294 line against in 60 IP in 2019), on a 3-year/$24M deal, definitely got the attention of his new teammates, who all said the fact that he faced the Nationals last October (and gave up Howie Kendrick’s big home run late in Game 7 of the Series) wouldn’t matter once the new season gets going.

“That happens,” Max Scherzer said of Harris joining the team that beat his Astros in the Fall Classic.

“Everybody thinks that it’s going to be a big deal or something like that,” Scherzer said, but “... this is baseball. Every year is a little bit different. New guys come in, and for us, look, I’ve given up plenty of runs, I’ve been on the losing side of a World Series, so when he comes into our locker room, we’re going to love him. It’s going to be awesome, because he’s going to want to compete and give it everything he’s got, and that’s how we won the World Series, is that type of attitude. So, it will be fun.”

“Yeah, it’s going to be great,” Nats’ catcher Kurt Suzuki told reporters. “I think a lot of things — talked about the bullpen and stuff, bolstering the bullpen, and I think last year the bullpen in the beginning of the year, obviously, is what it was, and towards the end of the year, they picked us up, they pitched some huge games for us, and we got into the playoffs, they pitched some big games for us, and adding a couple extra pieces to the bullpen, bringing Huddy back too, adding Harris, I think just makes everybody that much better.”

“I don’t know if people realize this: I hope Nats fans know that [Harris is] one of the best relievers in all of baseball,” Doolittle said.

“You look at his numbers from last season and throughout his career. He’s more than just the guy who gave up the home run to Howie.”

Having Harris and Hudson at the back end, along with Doolittle, gives the Nationals options for the late innings.

“I can only speak for Huddy,” Stephen Strasburg said (after he tested free agency and then returned on a 7-year/$245M free agent deal this winter). “I’ve heard a lot of good things about Will, and I’m excited to meet him. But having Huddy back there is just great. Great guy in the clubhouse, he really blended well, and bringing his veteran leadership down there in the bullpen with Doo is huge, and obviously from afar Harris has a great track record and I’m excited to see what he can do for us, and maybe he can teach me his cutter.”

Neither Hudson or Harris were told what particular roles they’ll fill, or if Martinez will mix and match depending on the matchups, but both said they were fine with whatever their manager asks of them.

“I feel like I can see us being pretty interchangeable,” Hudson said after he came back on a 2-year/$11M deal.

“Especially at the back end ... different matchups and different looks coming at you. I feel like that can really play into our hand really well, and give Davey some options down there.”

“In my time in Houston I had I think every single role that I think was imaginable for a reliever,” Harris said upon signing.

“I think I made the team in 2015 as the long reliever, per se, not that those really exist anymore, but I’ve done it all. I’ve been a closer at some point.

“I’ve been a set-up man, I’ve been a left-handed specialist at some point, as a right-hander, so for me that wasn’t important, I just want to pitch well, and I want to win games.”

Will Harris, Hudson, and Doolittle lock down the late innings? Will Suero, Strickland, Elías, and Rainey take the next step? How about Finnegan and Harper? Did the Nationals’ front office (and scouts) find some diamonds in the rough with those two additions? What did Martinez learn about his bullpen management in his second season as a manager in the nation’s capital?