Hand joins Nats' bullpen: 'I like our chances'

January 26th, 2021

Late-inning reliever or closer? The label doesn't matter to .

The three-time All-Star reached a one-year deal with the Nationals to bolster their bullpen, the club announced Tuesday. The contract is for $10.5 million, a source told MLB.com's Mark Feinsand, and does not include options or incentives.

Washington had been without an established left-handed reliever after Sean Doolittle became a free agent this offseason. Hand joins right-handers Will Harris, Daniel Hudson and Tanner Rainey in the back end of the Nationals' bullpen. Rainey is coming off a breakout 2020 season (2.66 ERA, 0.74 WHIP), while veterans Harris and Hudson are looking to get back into '19 form. Last year, the Nats' relievers had a 4.68 ERA, the eighth-highest in the Majors.

"I've always approached them the same, whether it's the sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth," Hand said on Zoom. "That's crunch time. When the starters are out of the game, they're handing it over to us to finish it off. I think as a group, as a bullpen, you've just got to have the mindset to get three outs and hand it off to the next guy."

Hand, who will turn 31 in March, was terrific for Cleveland during the shortened 2020 campaign, posting a 2.05 ERA (1.37 FIP) with a 34% strikeout rate and a Major League-best 16 saves. In two-plus seasons with Cleveland, he had a 2.78 ERA over 111 appearances, with 58 saves.

Before being traded to Cleveland during the 2018 season, Hand spent two-plus seasons with the Padres, with whom he posted a 2.66 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 195 appearances. It was in San Diego where he transitioned out of a starting role in '16 and rose to prominence as an elite reliever. Since then, only Edwin Díaz has recorded more strikeouts out of the bullpen than him.

"I'm always open to pitching whatever inning it may be," Hand said. "But these past two years I've been closing, and I'm comfortable in that role."

Hand has quieted left-handed hitters over his career, limiting them to a .187/.258/.294 slash line. He has held right-handed batters to .251/.329/.410 slash line.

One area in which Hand is looking to improve this season is regaining his velocity. His four-seam fastball -- which he estimates he throws for 80% of his pitches -- dipped to 91.4 mph last year, his lowest as a reliever. Hand began his training earlier than usual this winter to work on getting his speed back up.

"It was one of my biggest priorities this offseason, just to figure out what was going different, why the velocity wasn't there," Hand said. "Because throughout the course of the year, I felt great. It just wasn't, for some reason, coming out the same that it had been. … We'll see what happens once games start, but where I'm at right now, I feel like I'm in a very good spot."

As for getting acclimated to his fourth Major League team, Hand -- who began his career as a 2008 second-round Draft pick of the Marlins -- already has a head start. He was teammates with Yan Gomes during the '18 season with the Indians, and the veteran catcher was the one of the first people Hand reached out to after reaching a deal with the Nats. The resident of West Palm Beach, Fla., also knows fellow pitchers Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Austin Voth from working out at Cressey Sports Performance in Florida.

"The moves that the Nationals already made this offseason bringing in [corner outfielder Kyle] Schwarber and [first baseman Josh] Bell, [those are] two big moves there," Hand said. "Then with the starting rotation that they've got, I think we've got a good chance to go deep into the playoffs. That was big [for me]. Obviously, this is going to be one of the tougher divisions in baseball, competition-wise. We're going to have to be ready to go and prepared for that, but I like our chances."