Long road leads Nats reliever to MLB doorstep

May 13th, 2020

Long-term goals don’t come with expiration dates.

This June will mark seven years since right-handed reliever was selected by the A's in the sixth round of the 2013 Draft. In that time, the 28-year-old has appeared in 232 Minor League games -- and none yet at the Major League level.

Each season he’s on a 40-man roster represents a new opportunity to make that dream happen.

“I’m ready,” Finnegan said during Spring Training. “I’m ready to make that jump.”

Finnegan signed a Major League deal with the Nationals in December following his tenure in the A’s organization. His performance last season -- a 3-2 record with a 2.31 ERA in 42 outings across the Double-A and Triple-A levels -- was the strongest of his career. It caught the attention of a Washington club whose bullpen struggled during the 2019 regular season with a National League-worst 5.68 ERA.

“My decision to come here was, I was at the point in my career where I just wanted to go to the spot where I had the best chance,” Finnegan said. “I’m older for a Minor League player … I thought this was the best fit to try to make this happen.”

Finnegan knew it could be a long journey to reach the big stage. He transitioned from a starter to the bullpen in 2016, and he thought last spring might be his defining chance. It turned out to be another season in the Minors, but Finnegan morphed what he considers to be his hardest moment into a significant stepping stone.

“I had a conversation with our pitching coordinator over there in Oakland [during Spring Training], and he basically said, ‘As it looks right now on paper, we don’t really know if there’s a spot for you,’” Finnegan recalled. “I was kind of in that Triple-A limbo area where it was, ‘Do they use my spot for a younger guy coming up?’

“I had great relationships with all those guys, so they could be totally honest with me. They mentioned, ‘Have you ever thought about changing your arm slot a little bit just to see what we can do?’ I had to look myself in the mirror -- OK, here I was on the bubble of getting released, or whatever it may be. Why not give it a shot? Then, I had the best year of my career last year.”

The day of that conversation, Finnegan put the pitching alteration into motion. He had thrown over the top in the past, but he made the adjustment to lower his arm slot. The results: improved fastball movement and strike zone consistency. Finnegan tallied a career-best 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings, the most saves (14) in the A's Minor League system and a spot on the Texas League All-Star Team last season.

“It just kind of clicked right away,” Finnegan said.

Finnegan joined the Nationals for Spring Training, eager to experience a World Series-winning environment. He often could be seen sitting at his locker with a quiet smile on his face, his excitement apparent on a daily basis. Finnegan viewed it as his “first real chance” to make his Major League debut.

“You just keep your head down and go to work,” Finnegan said. “You just focus on executing all the things you have to do that day. You can’t really get caught up in, ‘Is there a spot for me? Will there be a spot for me?’ You can’t control that, so why even waste your energy thinking about it?”

Finnegan appeared in five games in Florida. He noticed early on he was getting back on his right heel, which led to a less-balanced stance, so he made a concerted effort to stand more on the ball of his foot. From that small change, he felt a greater sense of control. Finnegan posted threes across the board in hits, earned runs, walks and strikeouts over five innings, while holding opponents to a .167 batting average and recording a 5.40 ERA.

“We know what kind of stuff he has,” manager Dave Martinez said in mid-March. “He’s worked with [pitching coach] Paul [Menhart] on tweaking his mechanics a little bit.

"I saw him really use his legs and ... he was up in the upper 90s, topped 98 [mph], which was nice. He’s got a really good cutter and curveball. ... He looked really good.”

At the time Spring Training halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, the right-hander had made an impression on the Nats. On March 26, Finnegan, whose contract has options, was one of four players sent to Double-A Harrisburg. He remains in the running to compete for a roster spot, with an opportunity open following the release of fellow reliever Hunter Strickland.

For all the years in the Minors and the moments that felt like “this could be it,” Finnegan has had a steadying force in his life amid the ups and downs. It’s part of the reason why his goal never feels that far out of reach, and it’s one worth continuing to chase.

“My family,” Finnegan said. “I have an 8-year-old daughter, Brayden. She’s getting to the age where she knows what’s going on. She thinks it’s so cool and she tells all her friends at school. I just want them to be able to enjoy this and obviously provide for them, and this is a great opportunity to do that.”