Mike Rizzo was sick of waiting around. The Washington Nationals General Manager has come out firing since the Christmas holidays as he tackles his offseason wishlist.
The latest addition to the fray is Brad Hand who reportedly agreed to a one-year, $10.5 million deal with the team on Sunday afternoon.
Many of those reporting news of the agreement were dubbing Hand the team’s the new closer.
While it’s not clear whether this was information that came from the Nationals or whether it was just an assumption given Hand’s track record, it may not be the best role for him.
In recent seasons, the team’s bullpen has been the punchline to several jokes. Even in their World Series-winning season in 2019, the relief corps was on pace to be one of the worst units of all-time for the best part of the season.
However, last year there were signs of growth from a lot of the team’s younger arms. Even before the Hand signing, the bullpen was an area of the team that the front office felt pretty confident would be a strength for the team coming into the 2021 season.
“We’ve got a bullpen that we feel is built with a lot of depth and versatility,” Rizzo told reporters in mid-December.
“We’ve got some good veteran guys back there and some good young arms, more on the come.”
Tanner Rainey really began to flourish in the shortened 2020 season. Kyle Finnegan burst onto the scene as a solid mid-to-late inning option. Wander Suero continued his promising development. Heck, even Kyle McGowin looked like a potentially lethal weapon out of the bullpen with some increased slider usage.
That doesn’t even include experienced veterans Daniel Hudson and Will Harris, both of whom have a chance to return to their previous form in what we hope will be a more normal season.
Along with the newly-acquired Hand, there are simultaneously plenty of viable options to close out games for the Nationals, and no one reliever who is far and away more effective than the other that they need to be dubbed the team’s closer.
Because of that, and the fact that Hand is currently the sole left-hander that’s locked into a spot in the bullpen, it might give the chance for the Nats to be a bit more flexible at the end of games.
That way, Nationals manager Dave Martinez can attack any of the late innings that may have a left-handed hitter or two with his new weapon out of the bullpen in Hand.
While Hand has often been effective against both right-handers and left-handers when pitching out of the bullpen, he still has a natural advantage against southpaws.
Since becoming a full-time reliever in 2016 with the San Diego Padres, left-handed hitters hold a measly .150/.237/.264 slash line against him compared to a more respectable .226/.301/.367 slash line for right-handers when facing Hand out of the bullpen.
Say the Nationals lead by a solitary run heading into the eighth inning of a game and Freddie Freeman is due up second or third in the next frame.
There should be little doubt that Hand should handle that inning and give Martinez the best shot to get the first baseman out.
On a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Hand said he would be open to pitching in that sort of flexible role for the team out of the bullpen.
“I’ve always been a guy that whatever I can do to help a team win, whether it’s pitching the ninth inning or the eighth inning,” Hand explained. “Obviously there might be situations where there’s a lot of lefties coming up to hit and it would be a better fit for me to have that inning, but always open to pitching whatever inning it may be, but these past few years I’ve been closing and I’m comfortable in that role.
“It’s just one of those things that with this division, the NL East, there’s lots of lefties so whatever inning I’m going to be pitching in it doesn’t necessarily matter, but I’m comfortable closing.”
One concern with this could be that constantly switching between a closer’s and a set-up role could make it tough to prepare each night given the uncertainty of not knowing which role you’re going to pitch in on a given night if the player’s preparation is different.
For Hand though, having filled numerous relief roles in his career, that switch hasn’t affected the way that he prepares and works during each of those scenarios.
“I think it’s the same approach,” Hand said. “Whatever inning you’re pitching, you’re still trying to get three outs and not let anybody score.
“So you know the ninth inning is obviously the inning that ends the game and if you end up losing, it comes down on you a lot, but I’ve always approached them the same, whether it’s the sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth, that’s crunch time. When the starters are out of the game, they’re handing it over to us to finish it off.
“So I think just as a group, as a bullpen, you just have to have the mindset just to get three outs and hand it off to the next guy.”
Regardless of how Martinez and the Nationals decide to utilize the relievers at their disposal this season, it should be one of their strengths heading into 2021. Hand merely adds another dimension to that as a dominant left-hander that the team sorely missed last year.