As the Nationals stumbled out to their 19-31 start last season, there was one glaring problem leading to loss after loss. The bullpen was a disaster for the first few months and proved to still be a lingering issue as the year went on.
Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough were supposed to be the primary set-up men in front of Sean Doolittle, but neither offseason addition panned out and a carousel of relievers took turns trying to lock down a late-inning role before inevitably falling apart.
Washington will now go into 2020 hoping for a different outcome after signing Will Harris and bringing back trade deadline acquisition Daniel Hudson on multi-year deals. Harris and Hudson are more established and riding stronger seasons than both Rosenthal and Barraclough were when they joined the Nationals, so there’s certainly plenty of reason for optimism.
NATIONALS SPRING TRAINING PREVIEW SERIES
- Outfield: Starters locked into their roles
- Rotation: Workload will be an important factor
- Infield: Flexibility gives the team options
Here’s a snapshot of the Nationals’ bullpen as they prepare for the trip down to West Palm Beach.
All ages listed are as of Opening Day.
Closer – Sean Doolittle
2019 Stats: 63 appearances, 60 innings, 29 saves, 2 holds, 6 blown saves, 4.05 ERA, 4.25 FIP, 1.300 WHIP, 66 strikeouts, 15 walks, 11 home runs allowed and 2 hit batters
Contract: $6.5 million salary in 2020, free agent after 2020
Sean Doolittle’s 4.05 ERA and 1.300 from 2019 may appear like a stain to his résumé on paper, but those numbers were more due to overuse than ineffectiveness. No NL pitcher finished more games than Doolittle, who already had a shaky injury history in his career and had only thrown more than 50 innings in a season once since 2014.
He regained his All-Star form in the playoffs, however, allowing just two earned runs in 10 1/3 innings of work (1.74 ERA). The left-hander will go into 2020 as the team’s unquestioned closer and should be able to count on a lighter workload with the presences of Harris and Hudson.
Coming off a season in which he pitched as much and as late into the year as he did, Doolittle will go into spring training with the challenge of conditioning his body for another full year. He likely will be eased into game action after saying at WinterFest that his offseason regiment has already looked a lot different with a month of the offseason lost.
“I’m happy with where I’m at,” Doolittle said. “Physically, I feel good. Like I said, things have been a lot different. The workout, the strength-training routine has changed a lot. We’re trying to do some different things with the shorter window and stuff like that. So spring training might look a little different as well.”
Although it’s difficult to judge any of his numbers from last season because of the aforementioned workload, it’s worth mentioning that Brooks Baseball tracked his average fastball velocity at 93.8 mph—his lowest since 2015. As a pitcher who throws his four-seamer 88 percent of the time, that’s a number the Nationals will be paying very close attention to.
Set-up Men – Will Harris, Daniel Hudson
2019 Stats: 68 appearances, 60 innings, 4 saves, 26 holds, 1 blown save, 1.50 ERA, 3.15 FIP, 0.933 WHIP, 62 strikeouts, 14 walks, 6 home runs allowed and 0 hit batters
Contract: $8 million salary in 2020, free agent after 2022
2019 Stats: 69 appearances, 73 innings, 8 saves, 11 holds, 4 blown saves, 2.47 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 1.137 WHIP, 71 strikeouts, 27 walks, 8 home runs allowed and 4 hit batters
Although manager Davey Martinez hasn’t yet discussed what the hierarchy of relievers will look like in D.C., all signs point to Harris handling the eighth inning while Hudson takes over the seventh-inning/fireman role.
Harris has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the past five seasons in Houston, accumulating a 2.36 ERA over nearly 300 innings. It was surprising to see him land a three-year deal given his age, but there’s little doubt that Harris’ numbers warranted a hefty payday.
The big number for Harris in 2020 will be his groundball rate, which climbed to a career-high 54.6 percent last season. He’s always been a strikeout pitcher, but the 35-year-old will need to adjust his approach as he gets older in order to continue his success—especially after allowing a career-worst hard-hit rate of 41.2 percent in 2019.
As for Hudson, the right-hander jumpstarted his career in Washington after posting pedestrian numbers over the previous three seasons. The Nationals are banking on him pitching more like he did after being traded (1.44 ERA, 0.880 WHIP) than before (3.00 ERA, 1.271 WHIP).
With the Nationals, Hudson ramped up his fastball usage by 10 percent and ditched his sinker almost completely. His slider, however, became his bed pitch. Per Brooks Baseball, Hudson threw it for a strike 34.4 percent of the time with the Nationals after only doing so at a rate of 27.3 percent in Toronto.
Middle Relievers – Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, Hunter Strickland, Roenis Elías, Aaron Barrett, Ryne Harper, Kyle Finnegan
2019 Stats: 52 appearances, 48.1 innings, 0 saves, 9 holds, 3 blown saves, 3.91 ERA, 4.37 FIP, 1.448 WHIP, 74 strikeouts, 38 walks, 6 home runs allowed and 4 hit batters
Contract: League minimum in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2022, free agent after 2025
2019 Stats: 78 appearances, 71.1 innings, 1 save, 19 holds, 6 blown saves, 4.54 ERA, 3.07 FIP, 1.262 WHIP, 81 strikeouts, 26 walks, 5 home runs allowed and 3 hit batters
Contract: League minimum in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2022, free agent after 2024
2019 Stats: 28 appearances, 24.1 innings, 2 saves, 10 holds, 1 blown save, 5.55 ERA, 6.30 FIP, 1.233 WHIP, 18 strikeouts, 8 walks, 6 home runs allowed and 3 hit batters
Contract: $1.6 million salary in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2021, free agent after 2021
2019 Stats: 48 appearances, 50 innings, 14 saves, 2 holds, 3 blown saves, 3.96 ERA, 5.07 FIP, 1.280 WHIP, 47 strikeouts, 18 walks, 10 home runs allowed and 1 hit batter
Contract: $1.975 million salary in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2021, free agent after 2021
Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero and Hunter Strickland will enter camp as the favorites to win the three right-handed middle relief jobs that figure to be available, but they will certainly be challenged by fellow 40-man roster relievers Aaron Barrett, Ryne Harper and Kyle Finnegan.
With five of the eight spots available in the Nationals’ Opening Day bullpen likely being made up of the three late-inning arms, a left-handed middle reliever and the odd-man-out of the fifth starter competition, that leaves three spots open for the eight remaining right-handed relievers on the 40-man—and that doesn’t even include non-roster invitees like Kevin Quackenbush.
Rainey and Suero still have minor-league options, so the Nationals could easily pivot to one or two of the latter names to fill out their bullpen should they perform well in spring training. Harper is perhaps the most intriguing name out of the potential candidates.
The 30-year-old was traded to Washington by the Minnesota Twins after being designated for assignment to make room for Josh Donaldson. He’s a late bloomer, having only made it to the majors last season. But his respectable 3.66 FIP and 1.178 WHIP in 61 appearances last season should give him a good chance to make the team.
Outside of Doolittle, Roenis Elías is the sole left-handed reliever on the roster. That will make him essentially a lock to make the team, but his reverse splits raise questions of whether he can be a true lefty specialist. The three-batter minimum rule instituted this year may erase the need for one, but a reliable option to face lefty-heavy lineups deep in games should remain an important hole Elías will look to fill in 2020.
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