While most of Major League Baseball was in something of a roster freeze, the Washington Nationals made some moves last weekend, notably unconditionally releasing Hunter Strickland.
The former San Francisco Giant’s struggles from the end of 2019 continued this spring as he allowed eight earned runs in just 6.2 innings. His downfall still came from the long ball, with three home runs allowed, including one in the team’s last Grapefruit League game.
Now that Strickland has been released though, it opens up a spot on both the active and 40-man roster, giving the Nationals plenty of flexibility when crafting their final roster.
We don’t know when that final roster will be needed with the current suspension because of the coronavirus pandemic. But when the final roster is required, Strickland’s release will give some of the relievers in camp an opportunity to crack the Opening Day roster.
One player who could stand to benefit from that opportunity is Kevin Quackenbush.
The right-hander had a solid start to the spring as a non-roster invitee, not allowing a run in 5.1 innings over six appearances, striking out six and walking just one. That said, most of those appearances did come later in games when regulars were out or on their way out.
If you think you’ve heard Quackenbush’s name before — and I mean, who could forget a name like Quackenbush — it’s because he was once a dominant reliever for the San Diego Padres.
Way back in 2014, Quackenbush completed a meteoric rise through the Padres’ system, posting an ERA above 1.70 at just one level along the way. By midseason, he was in a setup role before finishing the season closing out games after Huston Street was traded to the Angels.
Though he’s never blown hitters away, the deception on his fastball, which has sat in the low 90s for most of his career, has allowed him to rack up swings and misses. In that season, the 9.9% swing and miss rate on his fastball was way above the 7.6% league average for heaters.
However, after that great rookie season, Quackenbush fell off the rails somewhat.
He was still solid in 2015 when he posted a 4.01 ERA and he had a 3.92 ERA in 2016, but the whiffs were trending the wrong way. It came to a head in 2017 when his ERA ballooned up to a troubling 7.86 in 20 appearances which led to a DFA as rosters expanded that year.
Following an ill-fated stint with the Cincinnati Reds in 2018, Quackenbush caught on with the Los Angeles Dodgers on a minor league deal in 2019. Though he never cracked the big league roster with their 106 wins, he seemed to get his mojo back in Oklahoma City.
Look past the 5.06 ERA in the hitting-haven that was the Pacific Coast League last year, the right-hander struck out 85 hitters in just 58.2 innings while walking just 16.
Because of the hitter-friendly conditions, it’s better to look at stats like FIP and xFIP, which take most batted balls out of the equation, to judge performance instead of ERA. With his excellent peripherals, Quackenbush rates highly with a 3.86 FIP and a 3.89 xFIP, which were 8th and 5th best in the PCL respectively among those with at least 50 innings pitched.
The question whenever Spring Training resumes is whether these promising peripheral stats can translate to an impressive enough showing to earn that last spot in the bullpen.
As Strickland was viewed as the frontrunner for that job, his release leaves the race wide open.
Ryne Harper might be the best candidate already on the 40-man roster after a solid rookie campaign with the Minnesota Twins last season. The curveball-heavy right-hander posted a 3.81 ERA and 3.66 FIP in 61 appearances, recording 12 holds in the process.
Beyond Harper, Austen Williams was the first man called up last season before injuries forced him to miss most of the year, so could have a good case. Kyle Finnegan had an impressive 2019 season in the upper-minors in the Oakland Athletics’ system. James Bourque could also make the cut as he looked impressive in Grapefruit League action.
The thing is, all of the above possibilities do have minor league options remaining. That means they could theoretically be sent down to Triple-A or Double-A temporarily while the Nationals see what they have with a non-roster player for the first few weeks of the season.
That’s not to say that this would give someone like Quackenbush a significant leg-up to make the roster, he would still absolutely have to earn his spot in Spring Training as the Nats will still want a competitive 26-man roster, but it is definitely a factor in the decision making.
When the Nationals broke camp, it looked like the only real personnel decision was going to center around whether Carter Kieboom would make the Opening Day roster. Now, when they eventually resume camp, there’s a full-blown competition for a bullpen spot.
Don’t count Quackenbush out from surprising a few people and making a convincing case.