The Nationals filled the southpaw-sized hole in their bullpen Sunday when they reportedly signed closer Brad Hand to a one-year, $10.5 million deal. He comes to Washington on the heels of a pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign that saw him lead the majors with 16 saves.
Washington’s roster was short on lefties after former closer Sean Doolittle hit free agency this offseason. Doolittle struggled to maintain his velocity in 2020 and made just 11 appearances before an oblique strain ended his season in early September. He was a candidate to return to DC given the Nationals’ lack of left-handers, but Hand’s signing likely means he’ll be playing elsewhere this season.
Hand, who turns 31 in March, has been one of baseball’s best relievers over the past five years. He broke out with the San Diego Padres in 2016 and made the All-Star Game each of the following three seasons. Known for his sweeping slider, Hand now slots in as the Nationals’ closer with Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey and Will Harris in the mix for set-up duties behind him.
Behind those top four arms, Kyle Finnegan and Wander Suero are the only other two locks to make the Opening Day bullpen. The Nationals did acquire two other lefties this offseason: minor-leaguer Sam Clay and non-roster invitee Luis Avilán. Both will compete in spring training for a bullpen spot against righties Ryne Harper, Kyle McGowin and Dakota Bacus, among others.
A return for Doolittle can’t be completely ruled out. Cot’s Contracts puts the Nationals about $17 million below the $210 million luxury tax threshold for 2021. That leaves some room for them to add Doolittle on a team-friendly deal, something that he may have to settle for after his production slipped in 2020 and the free agent market slowed to a crawl this winter.
However, the Nationals have several other needs that $17 million could go toward. Even after signing first baseman Ryan Zimmerman over the weekend, their bench could use another infielder — perhaps even one that could push Carter Kieboom for playing time at third base — and a catcher to spell Yan Gomes on occasion. GM Mike Rizzo also likes to leave some extra space under the luxury tax threshold for in-season additions at the trade deadline.
The Hand signing further signals the Nationals’ intent to move past their 2019 title-winning season and focus on getting back to the World Series with a new group. Doolittle, if he doesn’t return, would join fellow championship contributors Adam Eaton, Michael A. Taylor, Kurt Suzuki, Anthony Rendon, Brian Dozier, Matt Adams, Gerardo Parra and Wilmer Difo to since sign elsewhere.
Washington acquired first baseman Josh Bell and outfielder Kyle Schwarber this offseason to bolster their lineup before filling out their rotation with starter Jon Lester. Those additions coupled with the signings of Hand, Zimmerman and utility man Josh Harrison have made the Nationals one of the busiest teams in a winter where many teams have opted to shed payroll rather than compete.
But as busy as the Nationals have been, it doesn't appear Doolittle is part of their plans.