The Washington Nationals’ bullpen has historically been their Achilles’ heel. Since Drew Storen’s 2012 NLDS Game 5 meltdown against the St. Louis Cardinals, it’s been reconstructed several times over, sometimes in-season. But even when it has not been responsible for an early postseason exit, the bullpen’s weaknesses have usually been exposed.
Even when the team won the World Series in 2019, manager Davey Martinez changed the way he managed the bullpen in the postseason, using Patrick Corbin in long relief and leaning heavily on Tanner Rainey, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson.
But this year, there may be a different feeling about the Nationals’ relief corps because Martinez expects to have options in the bullpen that haven’t been available in past seasons.
“This winter, we did a lot of different things to try to make sure we had some depth, especially in our bullpen,” said Martinez.
“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.”
Already a strength at the end of the 60-game 2020 season, the bullpen was the target of the team’s biggest free-agent signing, left-hander Brad Hand.
Hand’s signing marks the first time since 2013, when the Nats obtained Rafael Soriano, that the team has acquired a veteran free-agent closer in the offseason. Hand has been closing for San Diego and Cleveland since 2017, and in that time, he has racked up 103 saves, 323 strikeouts, a 2.16 ERA, and a 1.05 WHIP.
Where Hand hasn’t been successful is the postseason. Pitching for Cleveland in 2018 against Houston, he allowed two runs over two appearances. Then, he took Cleveland’s 10-9 loss to the Yankees in Game 2 of last year’s Wild Card Series, where he gave up two runs on three hits in two-thirds of an inning.
So will Hand be the Nats’ closer in 2021?
The team already has an incumbent in right-hander Daniel Hudson, who had 10 saves in 20 appearances in the COVID-abbreviated season. His 6.10 ERA seems shocking until you consider the length of the season, and that nine of the 14 earned runs Hudson gave up came against the Braves in four appearances, totaling 3 2⁄3 innings.
Hand and Hudson give Martinez a righty-lefty closer platoon, a luxury Martinez had with Hudson and Doolittle, except now the left-handed half is four years younger.
Having two closers takes a lot of pressure off set-up man Will Harris. He’s a big part of the bullpen’s postseason pedigree, winning the World Series with Houston in 2017 and losing it to the Nats in 2019. Last season’s small sample size wasn’t good to Harris either, with a 3.06 ERA, nine walks, and 21 strikeouts in 20 games and 17 2⁄3 innings.
Harris and the Nats still have two years left on a three-year, $24 million contract to regain the magic Harris had with the Astros from 2016-19, when he was 13-8 with a 2.51 ERA, 247 strikeouts and just 50 walks in 226 innings.
But it’s the guys who fall after Harris on the depth chart that the Nats are really excited about.
Start with 28-year-old right-hander Tanner Rainey, who allowed just eight hits and seven walks in 20 appearances last season, striking out 32 with a 2.66 ERA.
Then there’s 29-year-old righty Kyle Finnegan, who had 27 strikeouts in 24 2⁄3 innings in his first year in the major leagues.
Wander Suero showed some tenacity in racking up a 2-0 record in 22 games and holding opposing hitters to a .227 average.
“I’m going to watch these guys closely,” said Martinez. “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.
“We used Suero a few times to get five outs, so he’s a possibility. Finnegan, as you know we used a couple innings, especially late in the games and in extra innings, the tenth inning, so he’s a possibility. It’s nice to have guys that I feel like are qualified to pitch out of that bullpen for us, so going into Spring Training, it’s early, my concern is to get these guys going, keep them healthy and get them out on the mound during games and see what transpires.”
Martinez was particularly excited about a late addition to the bullpen, 33-year-old right-hander Jeremy Jeffress, who was signed to a minor league contract.
Martinez said the 11-year veteran will be competing for a spot on the big league roster.
Jeffress had eight saves in 10 opportunities with the Chicago Cubs last year, with a 1.54 ERA in 23 1⁄3 innings.
“Even though he was on the other side of the field, when he came in the game he brought that little — that spunk.“ Martinez said. “I remember watching him against Juan Soto one day, him and Juan were battling, and he didn’t give in, and I like that about him. You know what you’re going to get from Jeremy, and I love that he brings that attitude to the Nationals now, and I think it’s going to be awesome.”