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Checking in on some of the Washington Nationals’ younger controllable relievers

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Rebuilding the bullpen isn’t going to happen overnight. The Nats best bet as they ramp up their rebuild is to try and develop cheap, controllable relievers.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

As the Washington Nationals look towards 2022 and beyond, we’ll continue to have a look at some of those players that might impact the roster moving forward. Rather than taking a deeper dive into one of the players on the roster today, we’re going to look at a handful of the cheap, controllable relievers in the system. In a year where the Nats were contending, they’d be looking to patch up some holes in the bullpen for the stretch run. When they’re not competing, it’s a perfect spot to go bargain hunting. The club did just that Saturday night, plucking 26-year-old reliever Patrick Murphy off waivers from the Blue Jays.

Patrick Murphy

Plucking Murphy off of waivers is exactly what a franchise like the Nationals should be doing right now. Keith Law ranked Murphy 16th in the Blue Jays system on his list, and even suggested that he could have been a Top 100 guy at some point if he could have stayed healthy. Fangraphs was a little lighter on him, ranking him 29th. Murphy spent most of his minor league career as a starter before being converted to the bullpen when he debuted in the majors in 2020.

Murphy’s a 6’5” right-hander who relies almost exclusively on his fastball and his curveball. He’s thrown a changeup 3.6% of the time in his brief time in the majors. His fastball sits 96-97 MPH with a little sink to it. Murphy’s curveball is pretty close to a 12-to-6 (maybe 1-to-7 at times), though he didn’t use it to great effect in the game I watched. One common note on all of the scouting reports is that Murphy throws a lot of strikes. He’s struggled in the majors this year: 4.82 ERA, 6:4 strikeout to walk ratio, but he’s only thrown 9.1 innings.

Ceiling: We don’t even know where he starts with the Nats yet. The stuff suggests he could be a leverage reliever down the line if everything breaks right. Either way, this is a low risk pickup that could pay off. It seems that the Blue Jays just had a bit of a crunch on the 40 man roster. Murphy was the odd man out.

Mason Thompson

Thompson would seem to be the most intriguing of the current crop. The 23-year-old rookie was acquired from the San Diego Padres at the trade deadline (along with infielder Jordy Barley) for Daniel Hudson. The 6’7” right-hander isn’t only an imposing figure on the hill. He relies predominantly (and by predominantly, I mean almost entirely) on a sinking fastball that sits in the 96-98 MPH range.

San Diego, who drafted Thompson in the third round out of Round Rock (TX) High School, tried Thompson as a starter in each of his first four professional seasons. He struggled with consistency from 2016-2018 before being limited to just ten appearances as he hit the Injured List twice in 2019. When he was starting in that San Diego system, Thompson featured a slider, a changeup, and a four-seam fastball to go with that sinker. He threw a curveball, too, but it seems that he’s scrapped it.

Upon being moved to the bullpen in 2021, Thompson worked his way into the closer’s role at AAA El Paso, earning a brief two week callup to the Padres in late June. His AAA numbers this season (3-2, 7/10 Save Opps., 5.74 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 24 K, 8 BB in 26.2 IP) were nothing to write home about. He has performed fairly well at the big league level thus far, allowing just 2 runs in 7.2 IP, but we’re dealing with a very small sample.

What’s intriguing is the stuff here. Thompson’s sinker definitely seems to be a plus offering for him. It’s got great movement, great velocity, and has natural sink because anyone as tall as him is naturally throwing the ball downhill. Scouting reports suggest that the secondary pitch he relied on most when he was a starter was a power slider. Scouting reports seem to grade his slider out in the 50/55 range, which makes it an average pitch. Even having an average pitch to mix in with his power sinker could be huge for him in the long run.

The other thing that Thompson is going to have to improve on is his command. I’ve seen Thompson’s scouting grade on his command as low as 30/35 on the 20-80 scouting scale. Let’s have a look at one of his recent outings.

Mason Thompson Pitch Locations 8/13/21
https://www.brooksbaseball.net

First off, let’s mention that Thompson threw fourteen pitches in Friday’s game against the Braves. Every pitch was a sinker, registering between 96.6 and 97.9 MPH. Eight of those fourteen pitches were out of the zone. Of those eight balls, only one was really close enough so that it might tempt a batter to swing at it. Of the six pitches that were in the zone, three of them were pretty close to middle/middle, even if those did produce two of the outs that Thompson recorded. Two of the sinkers were low and away to left-handed hitters. The one pitch on the inside of the zone to lefties was his strikeout... a perfect running sinker that came back to the inside corner to freeze Abraham Almonte.

There’s some real potential here, but Thompson needs to work on that command and he needs a second pitch. Of those six strikes that he threw in Friday’s game, all but one (the called strike) were pitches that were fouled off. His Swinging Strike Percentage (albeit in an absurdly small sample) is 8.3% so far, 3% below the league average. Keeping hitters guessing by mixing in that slider 20% of the time should help there.

Ceiling: If everything breaks right, Thompson finds a way to make his slider or changeup useful, and he improves his command to be in the 45 range, he could be a cheap closer on the Nats for the next six years.

Floor: It’s hard to imagine him falling off the 40 man roster in the next few seasons. He’s cheap enough and has enough potential to, at the very least, be an up and down guy between AAA and the majors. Given the rebuild, it would seem to be a pretty safe projection that he’ll stick around in the big league bullpen.

Andres Machado

Yet another converted starter, the 28-year-old Machado was signed as a free agent this past February. Machado had languished around the Kansas City system since 2011, pitching mainly out of the rotation before reaching the majors for two pretty rough relief appearances in 2017. He would never reach the majors with the Royals again, but he did show improvements in the minors after moving to the bullpen full time. He was a pretty reliable multi-inning hammer out of the bullpen in Omaha in 2019, posting a 2.89 ERA and a 65:33 strikeout to walk ratio in 74.2 innings (44 appearances).

Machado had a strong start in Rochester this season, with a 19:4 strikeout to walk ratio and a 3.68 ERA in 14.2 innings. He initially got a callup as the 27th man for a doubleheader in mid-June, but was immediately sent back down. He came back up when Erick Fedde hit the disabled list in late June, and actually saw some action this time before heading back down. Machado came in to do some mop-up duty in the second inning after a Fedde disaster start against San Diego and got lit up for 3 runs in 0.1 innings before heading back down.

He made just one appearance back in Richmond before returning to the big leagues on July 30, shortly after they’d traded away four pitchers from the big league staff. While many of the Nats relievers have struggled since the trade deadline, Machado has actually thrived. He’s pitched 8.1 innings in 8 appearances, allowing just 1 run on 4 hits and a walk.

Machado basically works with a four pitch mix. He throws both a fastball and a sinker that sit in the 94-96 range. He has a changeup that he doesn’t throw very often that sits in the mid-80s. His best pitch is probably his slider, which usually hovers around 82-84 MPH. He’s had some control and command issues in his past, but most of the data that we’re looking at there is from when he was being used as a starter. At the very least, his control has played up this year in his third year as a full-time reliever, as he’s dropped his walk rate to 1.88 BB/9 between Rochester and D.C. so far this season. His home run rate has shown some significant improvement as well. After allowing close to 1.50 HR/9 in each of the 2017-2019 seasons in the minors, he’s allowed just 0.63 HR/9 so far this season. We’re dealing with exceptionally small samples here, so it’s probably best to take a wait and see approach before getting too excited. A little regression wouldn’t be shocking.

Ceiling: If we’re really talking about his ultimate ceiling, Machado might be able to hang around the 7th or 8th inning as a setup man. Hanging around and establishing himself as a solid middle reliever would be a more realistic achievement.

Floor: Once again, we’re looking at an up and down guy who should be able to stick on the 40 man roster. The Nats do have plenty of holes in the bullpen right now. When a team is in rebuilding mode, patching those smaller holes is a much lower priority. He’ll likely be given every opportunity to stick around as a short-term solution.

Gabe Klobosits

Unlike the other pitchers that we’re looking at today, Klobosits is a home-grown product. He was a 36th round pick in the 2017 draft out of Auburn University. Klobosits also pitched predominantly out of the bullpen in college and was never tried as a starter professionally. While Klobosits has been terrific at every level he’s pitched at, he tore his UCL in 2018 and missed a little over thirteen months due to Tommy John surgery. Across his four minor league seasons, Klobosits had a 1.45 ERA, a 107:40 strikeout to walk ratio, and 13 saves in 105 innings.

Perhaps Klobosits’ biggest weakness is that he’s not really a huge strikeout pitcher. We can’t make many judgments on his major league strikeout rate (3 in 7.2 IP), but he’s not getting a ton of swings and misses. He did strike out more than a batter an inning during his minor league career, but a 9.17 K/9 for a 26-year-old in the minors isn’t exactly the dominant stuff you’d want to see out of a future leverage reliever.

Like Thompson, Klobosits is an imposing presence on the hill. He’s not quite Jon Rauch out there, but he is listed at 6’7”, 270. He throws a fastball that sits 95-97 MPH and mixes in a high 80s splitter and a high 80s power slider. He has average command and above average control. Let’s have a look at his outing from earlier this week against the Mets.

Gabe Klobosits 8/11/21
https://www.brooksbaseball.net

There are quite a few big misses here, but let’s have a look at some of the pitches in and around the zone. He did have just a couple of pitches that would really be classified as middle-middle (0.5 inches either way from center horizontally and in the 2.5 foot range on the vertical axis) out of his 21 pitches. He was able to work up in the zone with his fastball, which makes his fastballs up and out of the zone a little tougher to lay off. He did throw a couple of splitters that were just below the zone, which is exactly where he wants to be throwing it. Perhaps the biggest issues with this pitch chart would be that:

  1. There were a lot of bad misses above the zone. Some of these were the result of trying to take a batter up the ladder, but there were some bad misses here
  2. The two pitches that missed in the middle were his sliders. He hung them a bit

Ceiling: In a dream world, Klobosits continues to pitch like he has during his ascent through the minors and is a lights-out leverage reliever. More realistically, he fits in as a potential multiple inning middle reliever.

Floor: Maybe he never gets the strikeouts going in the majors and struggles to establish himself. Once again, he could be an up and down guy. At the very least, he could be a AAA leverage guy on the 40 man. That’s still more than most clubs are expecting from a 36th round senior sign.

Entering play this season, these four guys had a combined 60 days worth of big league service time, so they’re all going to be cheap for the next several years. While fans are often quick to criticize ownership for being cheap, players who are struggling making the league minimum are a lot easier to cut than players who are getting paid, say, $23 million a year.

We’ll have a look at some of the more established remaining relievers some time in the next couple of weeks. For now, I’m interested in seeing how some of you feel about these rookies in the comments. Will they be busts or will they break out? Are you excited about any of them?