Hunter Harvey added to mix; Doolittle debuts

March 22nd, 2022

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Nationals added an intriguing arm to their bullpen mix Monday, claiming hard-throwing right-hander  off waivers from the Giants. The club also lost righty Jhon Romero on waivers to the Twins in a separate transaction. 

Harvey, 27, is a former first-round Draft pick and top prospect of the Orioles, for whom he made an electric, long-awaited debut down the stretch in 2019. Baltimore then tried unsuccessfully to groom Harvey to close games for much of the next two years, but the injury issues that plagued him as a prospect never allowed that plan to blossom. Instead, oblique and shoulder problems limited Harvey to 19 games between 2020-’21; in the Minors, he missed two full years and parts of three others to elbow and shoulder woes.

“The good news is that he is healthy,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “When he’s healthy, we know he has really good stuff.”

Asked if he would reach out to Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, his old friend from their days coaching together in Chicago, about Harvey, Martinez said he probably would. Hyde is likely to give a glowing scouting report of Harvey, who wowed the Orioles when healthy and drew high marks for how he handled what was a near-constant barrage of setbacks.

But it was a relentlessly frustrating climb. Because of the injuries, it took Harvey six years to rise through Baltimore’s system, despite his obvious talent. He then made just 26 total appearances in an Orioles uniform.

When he was on the mound, Harvey featured a tantalizing arsenal. His four-seam fastball flirts with triple digits, living in the high 90s with excellent late ride. An upper-80s splitter is the better of his two offspeed offerings, and Harvey also uses a sharp curve to get swings-and-misses below the zone. He was taught the splitter by his father, former All-Star closer Bryan Harvey.

The Nationals finished 2021 with right-hander Kyle Finnegan closing games, and are expecting bouncebacks from righties Tanner Rainey and Will Harris after injury-plagued campaigns of their own. Former All-Star closer Sean Doolittle is back in camp, reunited with Washington via free agency last week. The Nats also brought in situational righty Steve Cishek, a durable veteran who should get plenty of leverage innings.

It’ll take a strong camp, but Harvey could pitch his way into this mix if he can prove durable this spring.

Doolittle's debut
Making his first game appearance in a Nationals uniform since 2020, logged a scoreless inning in relief of rotation candidate Erick Fedde in his spring debut Monday, a 7-3 loss to St. Louis. Doolittle issued a leadoff walk but retired the next three batters, throwing five of 12 pitches for strikes. His fastball consistently clocked in at 92-93 mph, per the scoreboard gun.

“I’m pretty happy with that,” Doolittle said. “For me in Spring Training, shoot, that’s pretty good.”

The Nationals brought Doolittle, 35, back on a one-year, $1.5 million incentive-laden deal this winter after their former closer split 2021 with the Reds and Mariners. The left-hander saved 75 games and pitched to a 3.03 ERA after coming over from the A’s in a deadline deal in 2017, earning All-Star recognition in ‘18 and playing a key role in the Nats’ title run a year later. But his velocity and effectiveness sagged in 2020, and his platoon splits widened significantly last season while his ERA stabilized somewhat, to 4.53. 

No longer one of the best relievers in the game, Doolittle nonetheless profiles as Washington’s primary late-inning southpaw. He held lefties to a .222/.276/.389 slash line in ’21, and spoke of trusting his secondary pitches more and experimenting with different deliveries Monday, with an eye toward being more deceptive. 

“You gotta do what you gotta do to keep guys’ timing off,” Doolittle said.

Worth noting
• After throwing 41 pitches of live batting practice late last week, Stephen Strasburg’s spring debut remains down the road. His next outing will also come in a controlled setting, Martinez said Monday, as Strasburg continues to work his way back from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. 

• Martinez offered an early hint at his potential Opening Day lineup, saying he likes the idea of new second baseman César Hernández leading off in front of Juan Soto, with Nelson Cruz slotting into the three spot. Martinez cited Hernandez’s on-base ability (career .345 OBP) as the reason, stressing the need for him to have a bounceback year in that department. Hernandez slumped to a career-low .308 OBP last season (in full-time duty), despite hitting a career-high 21 home runs with Cleveland and Chicago.  

• Martinez said infielder Luis García was a late scratch from Monday’s contest due to a stomach bug, with Lucius Fox starting at shortstop in García’s place. García isn’t expected to miss much time due to the issue.