When left-handed reliever Fernando Abad arrived in camp, he was just another one of the many relievers hoping to prove themselves, bunched in the minor league half of the clubhouse. The 27-year-old had a scant shot, if any, to make the team despite a minor league deal and an invitation to major league camp. On the worst team in baseball last season, the Houston Astros, Abad punched up a 5.09 ERA over 46 innings. But after only two strong appearances with the Nationals in spring training, some within the organization have noticed his arm and its potential.
“I was really impressed with the way he threw the other day,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “The way he attacked the hitters [Wednesday], he threw a couple good curveballs. That was great. [Pitching coach Steve McCatty] wanted him to throw another inning. I said, ‘No. I want to see that again the day after tomorrow.’”
With only one left-handed reliever signed to a major league deal (Zach Duke), there’s an opportunity for a second left-handed reliever, given his performance, to secure a spot in the bullpen. The Nationals are not wedded to keeping any certain number of lefties in the bullpen because their right-handed relievers have been effective against lefty hitters. But the early scouting report on Abad is positive and a reliever the Nationals will keep a close eye on him this spring.
“I’m doing my job and competing,” Abad said in Spanish. “I’m working hard and throwing the ball well. The decision is up to them.”
Abad attributes his inconsistent 2012 season with arm fatigue. After serving primarily as a late inning reliever, the Astros had Abad make six starts over the final two months of the season. He wore down during the season, a result of pitching too much during previous winter leagues. His arm, he reasoned, never had enough of a break. Between the minors and majors last year, Abad tossed 73 2/3 innings. The previous season, he tossed 51 2/3 combined innings.
“It hurt me because I’d pitched so much during the winter the year before,” he said. “That prevented me from throwing the ball like I’m doing right now. I rested a lot … That was better. It kept me healthy.”
To improve his strength this winter, Abad went running along hills and on the beach near his home in his native Dominican Republic and for long distances to build endurance.
Also part of his issue last season, Abad said, was his arm slot. He was bring his arm too far out and away from his body and flying open when he delivered to the plate. He said he worked during the winter to stay closed and hold his arm higher. Through two appearances this spring, Abad has allowed no hits, struck out two batters and walked two.
“He threw the ball extremely well,” McCatty said after Wednesday’s appearance. “Much better tempo [Tuesday]. Didn’t slow down on his offspeed as much. He threw the ball really well.”
Abad, an occasional starter in the minor leagues, throws four pitches: four and two-seam fastballs, a 12-to-6 curveball, change-up and slider. But to be a left-handed specialist in the majors, the Nationals would like to see him develop a stronger, more consistent breaking ball.
“I really like his arm,” Johnson said. “He’s always been a good, left-handed arm. Especially a hard thrower, sometimes it takes them a while. [Sandy] Koufax, it took him until he was 26 or 27. So I have a lot of patience for those guys with real good arms who are left-handed.”