As the Nationals cratered to a 97-loss season down the stretch in 2021, the bullpen struggled more than any other part of their roster. Washington’s relievers combined for 25 blown saves in the second half, easily the most in the majors.
Despite their issues in the late innings, the Nationals didn’t make any splashes on the relief market this offseason. Their two main additions came in the form of veteran submariner Steve Cishek and familiar face Sean Doolittle. Both arms carry some upside, but neither joined the club as an obvious choice at closer.
In fact, manager Davey Martinez departed from spring training without having made a choice at all. The Nationals plan to use matchups to determine their bullpen usage early on this season, mixing in Cishek and Doolittle with in-house candidates Tanner Rainey and Kyle Finnegan.
“We’re definitely gonna have to match up for the first part of this year,” Martinez said in a press conference Wednesday. “We’ll see, I think the closer role will take care of itself once we get going. As you know, we have some guys, some veteran guys, that have done it in the past. We also have some young guys that I feel like can step into that role: one being Rainey, the other being Finnegan.”
Rainey, 29, arrived in D.C. three years ago with a violent fastball that had him billed as the closer of the future not long after his big-league debut. However, inconsistent control has prevented him from running away with the job, even prompting the Nationals' top option him to Triple-A Rochester last season.
With Rainey out of the picture and veterans Daniel Hudson and Brad Hand traded away at the deadline, the Nationals turned to Finnegan to close out games late last season. The 30-year-old produced mixed results, converting 11 of 14 save opportunities. Martinez has expressed confidence in him, but he’ll have to earn that spot back.
For now, the Nationals will look to both Doolittle and Cishek to provide veteran presences in the bullpen and fill a variety of roles. Cishek is coming off perhaps the best year of the group, having posted a 3.42 ERA in 74 appearances for the Los Angeles Angels in 2021. He hasn’t been a full-time closer since 2016, but isn’t worried about what inning he’ll have to pitch.
“I treat every inning as if it were a save situation as it is,” Cishek said. “That’s just the mentality I’ve taken because I was a closer at one point. Because really every inning matters. Whoever’s closing the game, it’s our job in the bullpen to literally pass the baton as I call it. Because our job is to get the ball in the closer’s hands and if that’s the case then we’re in a good spot to win the game. So that’s why I treat every inning the same.”
Doolittle offered similar sentiments, though he admitted he’s only just figured out how to be the versatile arm Washington needs him to be. He’s the lone left-handed reliever on the Nationals’ Opening Day roster, which means his primary duties will entail facing lefty-heavy portions of opposing lineups.
“Last year, I really got a crash course in different bullpen roles and it was definitely an adjustment at first,” Doolittle, who pitched for the Reds and Mariners in 2021, said. “So I think that it’s good that I went through that and now I have that experience. Just being on-call really from the fifth inning on. Because earlier in my career I pretty much knew what inning I was gonna throw
“Now being the only lefty, it’s kinda like just be ready, which last year I went through for the first time so this year I feel mentally a lot more prepared for it so I’ll be ready…I hope to pitch well enough to be in that conversation for the end of the game as well. I know I gotta earn that but I feel like where I’m at right now physically, I can fill a number of different roles, I can move around and pitch a number of different innings. So no egos as a reliever, you just gotta be ready and help the team however you can.”
The Nationals have insisted they want to compete this year, which will put pressure on the bullpen to hold leads and secure close victories. Just how many of those opportunities the Nationals’ bullpen gets remains to be seen, but Martinez is confident in the group his club has assembled.
“Opening Day is only one day,” Martinez said. “This could rapidly change as we get going but I’m very confident in the 10 guys we’re gonna have down there in the bullpen. I really am. These guys had good spring trainings; they were throwing the ball well. So I’m excited to watch them go out there and compete.”