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Nationals choose risk in age over risk in recent results when building bullpen

Nationals choose risk in age over risk in recent results when building bullpen

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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Astros wade through first boo-filled night of many to come

Astros wade through first boo-filled night of many to come

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The only agreed upon factor of Saturday night’s spring training opener was affinity for Dusty Baker. 

Baker, alone at home plate to receive a ceremonial first pitch, raised his hand to the crowd when announced. Both sides cheered. Those in red stood, some shouted his name. Others on the Houston side could unabashedly applaud Baker. He represented what’s next, not what was.

But the past chased the Astros from the second the ballpark opened. Any Houston highlights were followed by hefty boos. “FOR THE H” flashed on the right-center field video board during the evening on what was supposed to be an Astros “home” game. However, there was nothing warm and fuzzy about the location for the Astros, an experience sure to track them outside of Houston throughout the season.

The Astros were booed en masse since Baker did not play any of his regulars. Myles Straw, Jeremy Pena and Taylor Jones began the game against Max Scherzer. It’s difficult to let Nos. 3, 89 and 79, respectively, have it on the first night of spring training. But, those on the team in 2017 remained safely in the dugout, prompting an expansion of targets.

Before Scherzer began his night, the Astros’ mascot, Orbit, ran across the face of the Washington dugout with an oversized Houston flag. He, too, was booed -- with fervor. Anything representing the Astros was in play since their main facets were not on the field.

Two signs carried by Nationals fans were taken by a ballpark employee. Some Washington fans banged on their seats during the game to mimic the Astros’ prior method for stealing signs. Scherzer thought something colorful had a chance to leak into the setting.

“I figured something like that was going to happen,” Scherzer said. “I got a good taste of what it’s like [when] facing [Bryce Harper] last year when we had our whole crowd going. I thought our fans would boo. I didn’t realize it was going to be that loud when I face Harp. That was a playoff atmosphere. Everything gets turned up a notch when the fans get into it.”

Scherzer threw 22 pitches, 13 for strikes in two innings. He allowed a single and struck out two batters he’s unlikely to ever face again. Otherwise, he was nonplussed to face the Astros in a game rain forced to pause, then stop, after two innings and a head-scratching delay.

“We won the World Series,” Scherzer said. “It wasn’t like I have a vendetta to hold. So, for me, over here we’re just trying to move forward and get ready for our season.”

Baker thought the reception went as expected.

“There were a lot of Nationals fans here,” Baker said. “We had a lot of fans here, too. You could tell who was for us and who was against us. All in all, it wasn’t too bad. You kind of expect to get some. But they weren’t too bad, though.”

So, the night ultimately served as the expected start. Scherzer pitched well. The Astros were booed.

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Astros booed, fans' signs taken in spring training opener against Nationals

Astros booed, fans' signs taken in spring training opener against Nationals

As if this week hadn’t already been bad enough for the Houston Astros, it got a bit worse on Saturday afternoon when they faced the Washington Nationals in the spring training opener. 

The Astros took the field at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and were welcomed by the fans with an eruption of boos. The two teams share the facility, but it was Houston's home game. 

Since 2017 Washington and Houston have shared their spring training facility in West Palm Beach and made it a tradition to kick off their respective Grapefruit League schedules against each other. They will play six times this spring - though Saturday's opener was postponed by rain after a scoreless two innings. 

One courageous fan really got into the act, holding up a sign reading "Houston *'s" that was eventually confiscated by ballpark personnel, according to the Associated Press.

If this start is any indication of what they will face throughout this season, it's going to be a long 2020 for the Astros. 

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