WASHINGTON — It’s easy to forget amid Carl Edwards Jr.’s emergence as one of the Nationals’ most reliable bullpen arms that he entered last offseason with a lot of uncertainty about the direction of his career.
The 30-year-old appeared in just 12 games for three different teams in the majors from 2020-21. Strains to his forearm and left oblique kept him off the field and he failed to stick, forcing him to look for minor-league contracts when the winter arrived. Then came the Nationals, whose manager Davey Martinez knew Edwards from their time together on the Chicago Cubs.
Washington made him an offer to attend spring training as a non-roster invitee, and Edwards Jr. impressed there before dominating hitters in Triple-A Rochester for the first five weeks of the season. The Nationals called him up May 10 and he’s carried over that success, entering play Friday with a 3.21 ERA and 0.929 WHIP in 28 appearances.
“I knew all along if he could stay healthy, and throw strikes, that he could help us, and he’s doing that right now,” Martinez said of Edwards Jr. in early June. “I’ve had him, like I said, he was with me in Chicago, we knew what he could do if he pounded the strike zone, and his focus right now is throwing strikes, and he’s done a great job. I’ve used him in different situations, but he’s really done a great job for us.”
Edwards Jr. hadn’t pitched at a near-elite level since 2018, when he put up a 2.60 ERA in 58 appearances with the Cubs. Back then, he was a strikeout artist. Now, he retains the same fastball velocity but instead has found success inducing weaker contact.
While his strikeout numbers are down, Edwards Jr. has an average exit velo of just 85.6 mph — 94th percentile in the majors this year according to Statcast and his lowest of any full season in his career. He’s also mixed in a changeup this season, a relatively new addition to his repertoire that has been particularly effective against left-handed hitters.
“I’m not trying to nibble,” Edwards Jr. said. “The more you’re in the strike zone, the more contact you get so the best thing for me with the way I have been pitching is if I’m getting weak contact and throwing 15 pitches less in an inning, it helps me out for the next day’s recovery. I have a speedier recovery. If I throw more, the recovery takes a little longer.”
The efficient right-hander is averaging just 15.2 pitches per inning, the best rate he’s had since reaching the big leagues in 2015. With the Nationals already signaling their intention to sell at the Aug. 2 trade deadline, Edwards Jr. figures to be an enticing trade target for contending teams looking to fortify the back end of their bullpen. He will also fall just short of qualifying for a full year of service time, keeping him under team control through the 2023 campaign.
Edwards Jr. doesn’t fault the Nationals for bringing him up after the service time deadline had passed. In fact, he feels a sense of loyalty to the organization that gave him a chance when no one else would.
“It’s part of the job,” Edwards Jr. said. “It’s just how the game goes, it don’t bother me. I’m still blessed to play this game. So I’m not gonna fault them…they gave me the opportunity to come here and play and all I can do is take my cap off and thank them as much as I possibly can because it wasn’t looking too good for me. It’s kinda the only team that had interest in me so they took their chance on me and I’m gonna do the best I can in every situation, every scenario to let them know that the decision to give me the opportunity I’m gonna run with it.”
The Nationals’ top trade candidates are first baseman Josh Bell and designated hitter Nelson Cruz, both of whom are on expiring contracts. However, deadline sellers have had a tough time netting top-100 prospects for rental players in recent seasons. Edwards Jr. could give the Nationals a valuable asset to include in any trade to up the price. He could also be moved in a separate deal that should still garner a valuable return.
“If they can get good prospects or another player for me to help them out in the upcoming years that’s what they’re going to do and I can’t fault them for that because as a guy in my shoes that’s kind of my role, is to be the best I can possibly be and if I do get traded it will give them the opportunity to just get someone [to] help them out in the future if not myself,” Edwards Jr. said.
He admits the thought of being traded has crossed his mind, but whether it’s in D.C. or somewhere else he just wants to help the Nationals build back to contention. Edwards Jr. would like to stay in D.C. if the team decides to keep him. He says he’s having more fun this year than he ever has, even on days he struggles.
“I love this team,” Edwards Jr. said. “I’m relaxed here, but it just goes to show if anything happens and I’m not here, I’m still gonna wish these guys the best for the upcoming years. It’s because, like I said, these guys was the team that really had interest in me and was willing to give me the opportunity so it’s all I can do is say than you and continue to be myself.”