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Washington Nationals news & notes: 2023 bullpen talk

Joey Meneses is hitting homers in the WBC. We’re talking bullpen mix...

MLB: Spring Training-Washington Nationals at New York Mets Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

Asked earlier this spring about the closer’s role in his bullpen, and whether or not Nationals’ reliever Kyle Finnegan, who in 2022 saved 11 games total for Washington, was lined up to fill it, Nats’ manager Davey Martinez said he loved having the right-hander at the back end of his bullpen, in whatever role he eventually fills.

“We’ll see how the spring plays out,” the skipper said. “Finnegan was our guy last year, and I love him in the back end of our bullpen.

“But it could be that we need him in the eighth inning, as we did sometimes.”

He told reporters he and Finnegan had a talk about how he intends to use him this season early this spring.

“I talked to him already and I told him, ‘Hey, look, there’s gonna be days where you close. There’s gonna be days where I feel like the eighth inning is where we need you the most,’” Martinez said, as quoted by MASN’s Bobby Blanco. “His response was, ‘Hey, whenever you need me, I’ll be ready.’ I love that about him.”

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Finnegan’s name came up as the trade deadline approached last year, but the club held onto the righty in the end, with GM Mike Rizzo explaining that it didn’t make sense to deal a controllable asset like the reliever if the right return is not there.

“There was a lot of interest,” in Finnegan, Carl Edwards, Jr., and others Rizzo said, “… but not to the point where you give away a good late-inning guy like Finnegan if you don’t like the prospect return, and you can control him for multiple years. So that’s always the decision process that you make.”

Finnegan posted a 3.51 ERA, 3.15 FIP, nine walks, 26 strikeouts, and a .213/.282/.340 line against in 24 games and 25 2⁄3 innings pitched post-deadline last summer, saving seven games in eight opportunities over the final two months of the season and finishing the year with a 3.51 ERA, a 3.76 FIP, 22 walks, 70 Ks, and a .221/.284/.381 line against over 66 games and 66 2⁄3 innings, with the 11 saves coming in 15 total opportunities on the year.

If not Finnegan, Martinez said, there are a few other options who have filled the role before and could again if needed.

“We got some guys that have actually done really well,” Martinez explained before Grapefruit League action began.

“We’ve got some guys that we saw last year that can possibly pitch in that eighth and ninth innings. So it’s going to be open. We also brought a veteran guy in, if he’s healthy, in [Alex] Colomè, who’s saved a lot of games, and he threw today and he threw the ball really, really well as well, so he could be a big addition, a big help. But like I said, right now it’s all about keeping these guys healthy, getting their work in, and then we’ll start our games, get them in the games and see how they fare.”

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The other guys who could potentially pitch in the eighth or ninth if needed?

“We got [Hunter] Harvey,” Martinez said, “we got ‘CJ’ Edwards [Carl Edwards, Jr.]. We know what Erasmo [Ramìrez] can do, but for me he’s more of a middle inning guy. We got [Sean] Doolittle coming back, who last year we used him in a different role, but who knows how we could use him this year. But we do have a lot of qualified guys that can help us in the back of the bullpen.”

Martinez mentioned Mason Thompson as well.

“I think Mason can be a guy that can pitch anywhere between the 6th-7th inning for us, but also could give us length as we saw last year,” Martinez said, “… and that’s something that we talked to him about. I don’t want him to just consider himself to be just a one inning guy. I said he may have to get four outs or five outs for us, so we’re going to prepare him for that.”

Doolittle was slowed down this spring after coming into camp hot following surgery to repair the UCL in his left elbow last summer, and doesn’t appear likely to be ready for Opening Day, and both MASN’s Mark Zuckerman and Washington Post Jesse Dougherty wrote last week about the annual search for a lefty in the bullpen, noting that after the first cuts of the spring, Doolittle, Anthony Banda, Matt Cronin, and Jose Ferrer were the remaining left-handers in camp.

Will the club have a southpaw in the ‘pen come the start of the season?

“Around here, it hasn’t been that big of a priority,” Martinez said, as quoted by the WaPost’s Dougherty.

“But it’s nice. . . . Look, last year, we had Doolittle. Even though his role changed, he was huge. I hope that somebody steps up this year. When Doolittle is ready, he could be that guy again.

“I would really like to have a lefty. In a perfect world, two lefties would be great because then you can do things early and late. But we’ll see.”

Finnegan, Harvey, Edwards, Jr., and Thaddeus Ward (a 2022-23 Rule 5 pick who has to stay on the Nats’ big league roster all season, or be offered back to the Boston Red Sox), seem likely to make the bullpen, barring a setback or hiccup this spring, the WaPost writer suggested. But after that? That will be settled between now and the end of Spring Training.

Ward, the lesser-known arm in the mix mentioned above was selected with the top overall pick in the Rule 5 Draft this winter, and his new manager said early this spring he thought the 26-year-old right-hander might be able to stick in the majors all season (which is why they drafted him after all).

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“Here’s a guy — we liked him because he’s a strike thrower, and he’s got a really good slider, and a good two-seamer,” the manager said. “So we want him to pound the strike zone. We talked to him about utilizing his changeup a little bit more, but he needs to be in the strike zone, that’s who he is. So, we’ll be looking for him throwing strikes, getting early outs, weak contact, so we’ll see how he fares.”

Martinez said there will be pressure on the pitcher to impress enough to make the cut and open the season in the ‘pen.

“‘We drafted you, basically, right?’” he said of his message for the pitcher.

“‘You get a chance to come over here,’ but we drafted him because we wanted him. That’s basically how I explained it to him. Look, we wanted you here, and you have an opportunity to come here and do some good things, so just relax and have fun, and go out there and you be you. But your stuff is good, your stuff plays, and you’re going to get better, so just relax, and anything you need from us, we’re here to help you.”

More recently, Martinez talked about Ward as a potential long-man in the bullpen and spot starter should the need arise this year (which it inevitably will).

“I talked to him before about just being a long guy out of the bullpen,” Martinez said, as quoted by MASN’s Bobby Blanco.

“He can do that, so we gotta get him built up for that. I like the way he’s been throwing the ball, he’s been throwing the ball really well. He’s a guy that we knew when we saw him, he’s a striker thrower. We liked him. He’s got a really good slider. And his changeup actually, working with [Pitching Coach Jim] Hickey, his changeup is really, really good. So we’re excited that he’s done so well.”