The Nationals’ 40-man roster currently has four left-handed pitchers. One is Patrick Corbin, their prized offseason signing of two years ago who is expected to be a reliable arm in the middle of their rotation for another four years. The other three have appeared in six major-league games combined.
Ben Braymer impressed with his first career start in 2020 and could be an eventual rotation piece. Seth Romero is a former first-round pick who broke his hand slipping on a flight of stairs in August. The Nationals signed groundball machine Sam Clay this offseason as a potential bullpen piece, though he still has yet to make his MLB debut. All three southpaws have varying degrees of potential but none give the Nationals a reliable left-hander for the back end of their bullpen next season.
Washington plans to contend for the World Series in 2021, which makes acquiring a left-handed reliever to join the late-inning mix alongside Daniel Hudson, Will Harris and Tanner Rainey one of their most important offseason goals. Among the more accomplished lefties available in free agency is none other than Sean Doolittle, who spent the last three and a half years in D.C.
Doolittle, 34, hit free agency this offseason for the first time in his career and it couldn’t have come at a worse time for him. The former first-round pick finished the pandemic-shortened 2020 season with five runs allowed in 7 2/3 innings (5.87 ERA), striking out just six batters while giving up nine hits, four walks and three home runs. He landed on the Injured List twice with separate knee and oblique injuries, the latter of which ended his season in early September.
However, the most troubling number was his average fastball velocity: 91 mph, down from his 94.7 career average. While Doolittle’s ability to throw hard is expected to decline as gets into his mid-30s, it’s concerning for a pitcher who relies on the heater as much as he does. Among all pitchers with at least 150 innings over the last four seasons, Doolittle has the fourth-highest fastball rate at 87.8 percent. Nearly nine out of every 10 times he throws a pitch, it’s a fastball.
Yet given the Nationals’ need for a lefty and the plethora of other roster holes that will take up a big chunk of their payroll, Doolittle could be a fit in Washington on an incentive-laden, one-year deal. Both Doolittle and manager Davey Martinez attributed Doolittle’s early velocity problems to the lack of a full spring training. When he faced the New York Yankees on Opening Night and served up the go-ahead run in the eighth inning, it was only the fourth time he had faced hitters since baseball resumed.
After he returned from the Injured List on Aug. 30, Doolittle appeared to have figured things out. He fired six consecutive scoreless appearances and started mixing in his changeup and slider more often. While it’s a small sample size, he threw just 81.8 percent fastballs over those six games before the oblique strain popped up. It was an encouraging sign that Doolittle would be able to re-invent himself should the velocity problems continue.
A return to Washington for Doolittle remains in play as long as he’s still a free agent. No one understands him better than the Nationals themselves, overseeing his midseason mechanical adjustments while pouring over video with him. If there is a route to success for Doolittle, there might not be a team more equipped to tap into it than the Nationals.