Will Harris signed a 3-year/$24M free agent deal with Washington’s Nationals coming off a 2019 campaign with Houston’s Astros which saw him put up a 1.50 ERA, a 3.15 FIP, 14 walks (2.10 BB/9), 62 strikeouts (9.30 K/9), and a .196/.246/.294 line against in 60 innings pitched for the American League champs (who lost to the Nats in the ‘19 World Series with Harris giving up Howie Kendrick’s foul-pole-clanking, go-ahead home run late in Game 7 — on a pretty good pitch).
Harris struggled in 2020’s 60-game COVID campaign, and finished his first season in D.C. with a 3.06 ERA, 4.55 FIP, nine walks (4.58 BB/9), 21 strikeouts (10.70 K/9), and a .280/.357/.440 line against in 20 games and 17 2⁄3 IP, but he was plagued by a groin issue all year, so going into 2021 healthy, with a full winter and Spring Training to build, the veteran reliever and his manager were hoping for big things.
“The reason why we signed him is because we know what he can do,” Martinez told reporters last spring.
“Last year was just one of those crazy years where we didn’t know what to expect, and he was hurt, he tried to come back and things were just achy for him all year long. I watched him throw today and he’s already way ahead of the curve.
“He feels good, so I’m expecting big things from him.”
Harris too was hoping for a bounce-back season.
“I think any pitcher will tell you,” Harris told reporters at the end of the 2020 campaign, “... when you have a groin injury you can still kind of do it, but you obviously favor it a lot, and you don’t want to feel that pulling anymore, so I’ve done it so many times over the past [seasons], I kind of know how to still get the ball to home plate, but that one was by far the worst one.
“The mechanics of it get too technical, but just really early on everything, really getting into my left side and getting off my right side because I didn’t want to put pressure on it, and it changes everything. I can tell by the way the ball is moving.”
Harris’s 2021 campaign didn’t go how he wanted it to either, unfortunately, with the then-36-year-old reliever (who turned 37 this past August) experiencing numbness and swelling in his right hand as and after he threw, which, after a long process, was eventually diagnosed as thoracic outlet syndrome. A season-ending surgical procedure brought an end to the second year of his three-year deal, but everyone involved was optimistic he could come back and contribute in 2022.
“After talking to him yesterday, he actually is in pretty good spirits because they finally know something,” Davey Martinez said at the end of May. “And they think that this is really going to help him. So, with that being said, he just wants to have the procedure done, and get ready as quick as he possibly can get ready so he can come back and hopefully have no other issues. But it is — dealing with what he was dealing with, it was frustrating, because like I said, he wanted to help us win, and he was going out there, doing the best he can, and just his hand would swell up on him and that was no fun for him after every game, where his hand was just swollen.”
Though he wasn’t able to contribute on the mound, Harris was around the club following his surgery, and Martinez talked in mid-September about the work the reliever was doing behind the scenes.
“He’s throwing, throwing very light, but he’s throwing again,” the skipper shared.
“I think he threw like 50 feet the other day, but he feels good, so he’s going to continue to do his throwing progression, and then we’ll see. The good thing for us is he’s able to throw, and this way when the winter time comes, he’ll be — hopefully he’ll be a full-go and ready to go so we get him back in Spring Training ready to go.”
As a veteran presence with a team that dealt away a number of veterans at the trade deadline, Harris helped how he could as he rehabbed.
“He’s been great. Talking to all the young relief pitchers. But it’s nice to have him around. It really is. I mean … he’s a veteran guy. He’s been doing this for a long time, so not only does he get his work in, but he’s watching and talking to guys about routines and how to get better, so it’s good to have him around.”
Will Harris contribute on the mound in 2022, in the final year of his three-year deal? How important will his veteran presence be in a bullpen that right now consists of a number of relatively young and unproven arms?