Nationals' bullpen outlook much brighter in 2020

January 17th, 2020

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals knew they needed to upgrade their bullpen this offseason.

Now that the dust has settled -- for now -- how does adding two of the top six free-agent relievers (by WAR standards) sound?

That was accomplished by bringing  to D.C. on a three-year deal and returning postseason savior  for two years. The pair will, above all, work to steady a bullpen that had a 5.68 ERA in 2019 -- the highest all-time for a team that made the postseason.

“I think that we’re coming into the season with a solid bullpen, and we have ourselves a good rotation that, when they’re healthy, they’re as good as everybody,” general manager Mike Rizzo said at Winterfest on Saturday. “And a real competent, steady lineup that I think can go through the rigors of the 162 [games] and give us a chance to go deep.”

The Nationals still have some questions to answer when it comes to the totality of their ‘pen, and Rizzo has not shied away from in-season trades to enhance the relief corps. Until then, however, here’s how things are shaping up:

The high-leverage options: LHP Sean Doolittle, RHP Will Harris, RHP Daniel Hudson, RHP Tanner Rainey

How does a back end comprised of Doolittle-Harris-Hudson feel when compared to the 2019 iteration of Doolittle-Trevor Rosenthal-Kyle Barraclough? That's a metamorphosis from one proven closer with two guys that bounced around the league last year to three proven closers.

Harris was brought to D.C. because of his pedigree. Since he joined the Astros in 2015, only two relievers outshine his 2.36 ERA (minimum 200 innings pitched), and he’s appeared in at least 60 games every season but one. Harris is a plus pitcher with both his cutter and curveball, and his splits are actually better against lefties -- an indispensable trait in a bullpen with just two lefties.

Harris, Hudson and Doolittle all possess the ability to close, though all have stressed that they don’t possess the ego to feel entitled to do so. So while Doolittle will likely get the lion’s share of chances, manager Dave Martinez has what he didn’t have most of last year: options.

“It gives us depth, it gives us options,” Doolittle said. “Plus, the guys that are coming back from last year, if they take a step forward, next thing you know you have a deep and a really good bullpen.”

The real wild care here is Rainey. In his first full season in 2019, the 27-year-old flamethrower showed very high peaks -- racking up 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings and a top-five opponents' wOBA against his slider (.149). Those numbers, however, came alongside some room for great improvement -- he also averaged 7.1 walks per nine and sat in the bottom 3 percent of hard-hit percentage.

Also expect Wander Suero to get some reps here, especially when one of the aforementioned names needs a night off or, less ideally for Washington, hits the injured list.

The middle options: RHP Wander Suero, LHP Roenis Elías, RHP Hunter Strickland

At the end of the day, this bunch can make or break the Nationals’ bullpen, and like Rainey, this group is full of wild cards. Suero essentially followed Doolittle as Martinez’s second-most relied-upon reliever for most of the first half of 2019. His Jekyll and Hyde-type outings ultimately landed him with a 4.54 ERA in 78 appearances -- the latter number ranking fourth among all pitchers in just his second big league season.

Elías and Strickland’s possibilities are muddied. After both joined the club at the Trade Deadline, the former pitched in only three innings for Washington, while the latter struggled to a 5.14 ERA in 24 appearances. Both dealt with injuries -- Elías immediately after joining the club while legging out a ground ball in Arizona and Strickland with a lat tear at the onset of the season when he was still with Seattle -- but Rizzo is confident the offseason can make them bridge arms come March.

They will have to be, especially if the Nationals want to keep themselves from depending too much on their back-end trio.

“On a personal level, it wasn’t as successful [a season] as I wanted it to be,” Strickland said recently, adding that he’s had to adjust his release point and weight room regimen since his injury. “Just trying to fine-tune some things there and work on that and overall perform better.”

The to-be-determineds: RHP Kyle Finnegan, RHP Joe Ross, RHP Autin Voth, RHP Erick Fedde, Minor League signings

Ross, Voth and Fedde will fight in Spring Training for the fifth rotation spot, with those that miss out seeming to have an inside track to become a long-relief option in the bullpen. All had experience relieving and starting in 2019, and while none set themselves apart as a reliever, Voth showed the most consistency as a potential fifth starter.

Finnegan is the new face to the equation. The career Minor Leaguer lauds impressive whiff numbers -- averaging 12.9 strikeouts per nine across 42 appearances at Double-A Midland and Triple-A Las Vegas in 2019 -- and now his Major League contract gives him his best shot at a big league roster. The Nats have also reportedly agreed to Minor League deals with Javy Guerra, who was on the World Series roster, along with Francisco Abad and David Hernandez. A few more arms on the farm could compete for these spots, too.

The outlook

The Nationals could still use another lefty for their bullpen, partly because Elías is a bit of an albatross with career numbers against lefties that are actually worse than against righties. The Nats will appreciate Harris’ splits the opposite way, especially given the implementation of the three-batter minimum rule.

By and large, this iteration of the Nationals' bullpen is projected to be far stronger than its 2019 form. The club tried to rid itself of much doubt and strayed away from its hesitancies by signing Harris and Hudson to multiyear deals.

“Relief pitching, it’s just so inherently volatile,” Doolittle said. “You can make moves and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't.”

History -- especially as it pertains to the Nats -- shows that bullpen configurations for Opening Day can be merely groundwork. In an ideal world, Washington hopes it won’t have to do much tinkering, but should results start to more closely align with 2019, don’t be shocked if some of the payroll flexibility saved when Josh Donaldson signed elsewhere is cashed in down the road.

“That’s what we do,” Rizzo said. “We budget for it, we plan for it and I think most successful teams do that.”