Brace yourselves. As the title of this piece has already alluded to, the Washington Nationals might actually have an effective and relatively dependable bullpen heading into the new season.
That’s not a statement that can be said too often for this team. However, given they were already starting with a relief corps that showed a lot of promise last year while making a couple of key additions over the winter, it has the potential to improve even further.
The obvious addition to mention is Brad Hand, who signed a one-year, $10.5 million deal with the team in January. The left-hander is coming off of a dominant five seasons as an exclusive reliever with a 2.70 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 12.2 K/9, and 104 saves in 127 chances.
He should slot right in and replace the outgoing Sean Doolittle as the Nats’ high-leverage lefty.
Then on Monday, they were able to nab 2020 NL Reliever of the Year finalist and 2018 NL All-Star, Jeremy Jeffress, on a minor league deal that would pay him just $1.25 million if he makes the major league roster and a potential $1.25 million in performance bonuses.
Though it’s only a minor league deal initially for Jeffress, given his career track record, he would seem to be in a great position to crack the Nationals’ Opening Day bullpen.
“We talked a lot this offseason, right away, I was talking to [GM Mike Rizzo] and doing our homework,” Martinez told reporters on Monday about the team’s emphasis on adding to the bullpen.
“For the most part, we know who these guys are. We’ve seen them before, even if it was another team, we’ve done our due diligence, I know our guys really well, so like I said, it’s a matter of getting the guys here and having that depth. That’s really what we try to accomplish.
“I think we did a good job, [Rizzo] did a great job on doing that this year. We have tons of guys that if something does happen, whether it’s early in the spring or late in the spring or whenever, we feel like we have guys that we feel like can fill the void.”
Their additions mean that the likely bullpen to start the season with the big league team should be: Hand, Jeffress, Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey, Will Harris, Wander Suero, Kyle Finnegan, with one of Joe Ross, Erick Fedde, or Austin Voth as a long reliever.
Even though that list of players arguably lacks a true out-and-out closer who can be a sure thing at the end of games right now, it makes up for it in its depth from top to bottom.
Excluding the long-man, over the last two seasons, the other seven names mentioned above combine for a .217/.303/.349 slash line against them with a 3.32 ERA and 3.60 FIP.
Those last two figures would both be third in the majors in that timeframe if you treat them as a team.
Obviously, the bullpen won’t purely be of those eight pitchers.
Injuries and dips in performance will undoubtedly occur, so the Nationals are prepared for that with further depth lurking on their 40-man roster.
Ryne Harper had solid spells in 2020. Armed with a new slider-heavy approach, Kyle McGowin looked dominant late on in the season out of the bullpen. Management is also high on their new left-hander, Sam Clay, who they nabbed on a major league deal in a similar fashion to their signing of Kyle Finnegan the previous offseason.
All of those players have at least one option remaining, giving the team plenty of roster flexibility in their bullpen if players get hurt or need to work on some things in the minors.
That’s a world away from the likes of Dan Jennings, Jonny Venters, and Michael Blazek that Washington was forced to pick up off the scrapheap and use as depth pieces in relief during 2019 when their bullpen was the laughing stock of baseball for the first half of the year.
“You can’t ever have enough,” Martinez said of the team’s depth in the bullpen. “You don’t know what the future is going to bring, or what happens, and it’s nice to have, especially some of these veteran guys that we have, have that kind of depth.
“The guys that we were looking for were guys that could pitch in high-leverage situations, guys that get big outs, and we were able to bring a couple of new guys, and some of the guys that we already have, we think that fits our bill.
“I’m going to watch these guys closely. We got a lot of stuff that we’re looking at and watch them and see how everything transforms throughout the spring, but we got plenty of time. These guys are all going to get out there and get those innings and build them up and see where we go from there.”
What does that depth allow the Nationals to do? It means Martinez doesn’t have to overwork his pitchers, something he has notably drawn criticism for in his time as manager.
“It’s nice not to have to use these guys three out of four days,” Martinez explained. “A lot of these guys, they’ll pitch back-to-back days, that third day is kind of — watching their innings, the big thing is kind of limiting their innings, and keeping them strong for August and September.”
With a seemingly settled Opening Day eight-man bullpen in place, for the Nats’ skipper, it’s now just about having a successful spring and making it through camp unscathed, injury-wise.
“Our back end of the bullpen right now, barring any injuries, looks really good.”