Trevor Rosenthal’s showcase impressed everyone who watched. He was throwing 100 mph again. He was upbeat, still broad-shouldered and the ROI of signing him was tantalizing.
Rosenthal was so sure in the fall of 2018 that he was ready for a comeback following Tommy John surgery, he considered moving his return to the regular season. But, he waited. And it paid off. Washington paid him $7 million for a year of comeback work. A conditional option was also tacked onto the contract. The risk appeared worth it to the Nationals, as well as much of the league.
Trading for Kyle Barraclough came at a low-level cost -- just international slot money the Nationals were unlikely to use anyway. His year-over-year performance declined every season in the majors. However, Washington was willing to absorb the risk because of the low level of acquisition cost, as well as his modest future pay.
So, two fliers for two prime bullpen spots. The decisions worked as well as betting on a fire hydrant in a flexibility contest.
This year, Mike Rizzo pivoted. In are known commodities. The risk rests with their age.
Will Harris, now the owner of a three-year contract, turns 36 next year. He will spend the final month of the 2022 season as a 38-year-old reliever bringing in the final chunk of his $24 million contract.
Why three years for Harris at this age? Because the Nationals paid for steadiness: 64 innings a year, a sub-3.00 ERA, repeatable pitches and approach. He throws a cutter and a curveball. Harris was not effective five years ago because he was throwing 98 mph and now needs to adapt as he ages. This is what he does. It works.
“I haven’t changed at all my entire professional career,” Harris said. “I’ve kind of been the same pitcher and done a lot of the same things I’ve had success with for a long time. For me, it’s all I’ve ever known -- the way that I do it. I haven’t added any pitches. Or subtracted any pitches. I only have mainly two that I throw all the time. It’s just kind of my recipe for success.”
Which is why he -- and the Nationals -- believe he will age well on the mound. Harris is asking his body for repeated, common tasks, not new, out-of-the-ordinary efforts. Health is always fleeting and unpredictable, much like relief performance, but Washington is taking a large sample size to bet on Harris’ ability to be as close to a sure thing as possible.
Picking up Sean Doolittle’s option was another act of opting for a known commodity. Doolittle is 33 years old. He worked through shoulder injuries in the past and a knee injury last season. His career FIP in eight seasons: 2.68. The best year of his career was 2018 in Washington. This season, he has much more depth, not guesswork, around him. Veterans who did it last year, three years ago, five years ago are in.
“For me, my focus is on correcting a lot of the problems I had during the regular season last year and picking up where I left off in the playoffs,” Doolittle said. “I feel like I finally got myself right down the stretch in September and I feel like I was the best version of myself in the postseason and that’s where I want to pick up from to start the 2020 season.”
Daniel Hudson will be 33 years old when the season ends. He’s pitched 692 ⅔ innings during his 10-year career. Harris and Doolittle spend 784 innings on a mound in their careers combined.
The concern with Hudson is around whether last year was an outlier. It’s just a 24-game sample size in Washington. However, his ERA-plus of 322 was so far beyond his second-best output in that category -- 251 in 2010 when he was 23 years old -- it’s fair to wonder what is repeatable for him. Assume this: Hudson will remain an effective reliever, but not the one who was in Washington last season. At least not for a full season. The good news? There is significant help around him, from Tanner Rainey to Harris to Doolittle. That should mitigate some of the expected slippage.
But, what Washington has heading to West Palm Beach is an upgrade and shift from last year’s signing philosophy. It’s the “back of the baseball card” approach versus ceiling chase. It also could end up curing last season’s biggest problem.
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