One thing on Nats' wish list: Lefty reliever
Washington yet to address shortage of setup southpaws in bullpen
WASHINGTON -- The Nationals have already completed much of their heaviest shopping this winter -- with the exception of a potential reunion with Bryce Harper -- upgrading at catcher, revamping their rotation, finding a new second baseman, reconnecting with their old backup first baseman and adding a pair of righties in the bullpen.
It leaves little on the Nationals' wish list before they head to West Palm Beach, Fla., three weeks from Wednesday and gives them a chance to focus on a few minor tweaks to their roster, areas like starting pitching depth or adding veterans to come to camp and compete for roster spots. But as the Nats begin polishing off their offseason, one area they may need to still address is their shortage of left-handed pitchers, especially in the bullpen.
On the Nationals' 40-man roster, Patrick Corbin is their only left-handed starter. Their best reliever, Sean Doolittle, is left-handed, but he is also the closer and the Nats have shown little willingness to use Doolittle outside of save situations. It leaves only Matt Grace, who is coming off a career year, and Sammy Solis, who was at risk of being non-tendered at the start of the offseason, as the only other left-handed relievers on the roster.
The Nationals took one step in addressing this issue last week, when the club signed left-hander Vidal Nuno to a Minor League deal that includes an invitation to big league Spring Training. His deal will pay him $1.3 million if he makes the Major league team, a source told MLB.com, and the Nats have plans to use Nuno both as a starter and a reliever during camp. He has only made one Major League start in he past three seasons, however, so while he may get some starts in the Grapefruit League, his value likely lies as a reliever and potential long man.
Nuno, 31, joins the Nationals after making 17 appearances with the Rays, although his season was interrupted by a stint on the disabled list (right hamstring). He pitched well enough to post a 1.64 ERA in 33 innings, but Tampa Bay outrighted him at the end of the season, and his underlying numbers (4.46 FIP, .216 batting average on balls in play) suggest some regression.
Adding Nuno was a start, but perhaps Washington could still do more. According to an estimation by Cot's Baseball Contacts, the Nationals are about $11 million below the competitive balance tax threshold of $206 million for 2019. That gives them a little bit of breathing room to still add a player if they do not want to exceed that number, and with the free-agent market moving at a glacial place, perhaps the Nats could sit back and find a bargain with one of the lefties on the market.
However, the team does seem content with their current bullpen options from the left side.
Grace's stock within the organization grew with each successful outing last season as he got thrust into more and more high-leverage situations, thanks in part to a plethora of injuries to the rest of the bullpen. But he handled himself well. In 56 games, his ERA was 2.87 with 48 strikeouts and 13 walks across 59 2/3 innings. Grace showed improvement, but he probably doesn't miss enough bats (19.4 percent strikeout rate in 2018 and 17.5 percent in his career) to remain as the top left-hander out of a good bullpen.
If Washington does not make another significant move, it will be another show of confidence for Solis, even after a nightmare 2018 season. He posted a 6.41 ERA in 56 appearances with a 1.55 WHIP, and the team grew frustrated with his inability to retire left-handers as opposing southpaws walloped him for a .993 OPS. Yet, the Nationals did not want to give up on Solis, 30, because he still possesses tantalizing tools, including a fastball that can reach the mid-to-upper 90s and pitches that have the ability to miss bats -- 44 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings last season -- that Grace doesn't have. The issue is Solis also had five more walks in about 20 fewer innings than Grace.
However, there is evidence Solis can recapture his form for 2016, when he put up a 2.41 ERA and a 2.78 FIP with 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings. He showed glimpses through the first few months of last season in fact. Through June 18, Solis posted a 3.28 ERA and held opponents to a slash line of .205/.307/.341. He struck out 29 and walked 12 in those 24 2/3 innings. That's still too many walks, but it was a strong start for Solis. He also made 36 appearances during that span, and his career high entering last season had been 37. He shattered that previous high by appearing in 56 games in 2018, but Solis may have been a victim of overuse early in the season.
With better and more optimal usage, the Nats believe Solis can still be a reliable bullpen arm. If they do not add another left-handed reliever, they will be doubling down on that belief.