Matt Grace moves on to the Nationals radar

Syracuse Chiefs

On June 16, the Nationals promoted left-handed reliever Matt Grace from Class AA Harrisburg to Class AAA Syracuse. It may have seemed like a minor transaction. But it could become significant, a step in developing a pitcher who helps them on the major league level during this season’s playoff race.

Grace has received scant attention, but multiple rival scouts who watched him at Harrisburg said he has turned into a prospect who could pitch for the Nationals this season. A college reliever turned struggling professional starter turned rapidly ascending reliever, Grace has put himself on the Nationals’ map.

“He’s certainly on the radar,” Nationals assistant general manager Doug Harris said.

The Nationals drafted Grace in the eighth round of the 2010 draft out of UCLA. In college, on the same staff as future top-five picks Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole, he mostly pitched in relief. The Nationals made him a starter at the lower levels, so he could have more reps and hone his delivery between starts. He muddled through three seasons as a starter, reaching Class A Potomac by the end of the 2012 season with a career ERA over 5.00.

“We always felt he was probably a reliever,” Harris said.

Before 2013, the Nationals shifted Grace to the bullpen, and his career has taken off. Minor league pitching coach Chris Michalak and pitching coordinator Spin Williams worked with Grace on changing his delivery. He began to over-rotate, which added deception to his already short-arm, quick delivery.  He earned a promotion to Class AA Harrisburg after 14 appearances and finished the year with a 3.53 ERA over 66 1/3 innings.

This year, Grace has dominated with sinking fastballs, which hums at 89-92 miles per hour. He’s gone to another level as his slider improved this season. His sinker cuts down and across the plate toward left-handers, and his slider moves the other way. The combo forces hitters to protect the entire plate, and his quick, hidden arm slot makes them react late and creates weak contact.

“He was really a one-and-a-half-pitch pitcher as a starter,” Harris said. “Now he’s a bonafide two-pitch pitcher.”

In 35 1/3 innings over 25 games at Harrisburg, Grace punched up a 1.02 ERA. In his first three appearances at Syracuse, he hasn’t allowed a run. Beyond his sparkling ERA, other factors make Grace possibly appealing as a big-league reliever.

He keeps the ball in the park: In his 104 2/3 innings since he became a reliever, Grace has allowed two home runs, both coming last season.

His recent history as a starter makes him a durable relief pitcher: In 15 of his 28 appearances this season, Grace has pitched across multiple innings. In 12 of them, he threw at least two innings, and in four, he recorded seven outs.

He dominates left-handers: In 63 plate appearances against them this season, Grace has held left-handers to a .193/.242/.224 slash line, which even in a small sample is absurd.

Grace, 25, is not on the Nationals’ 40-man roster, so he may not even constitute an automatic September call-up. But his emergence may allow the Nationals to deal Ross Detwiler at the trade deadline.

To be clear, this is only speculation, but it adds up. If the Nationals gain enough confidence in Grace prior to July 31, they could see what they can get for Detwiler and move Grace into his role — which, to be blunt, wasn’t much of a role before his epic, four-inning performance Tuesday night. Grace and Detwiler aren’t a perfect comparison, but Grace would give the Nationals a second lefty in the bullpen if they moved Detwiler.

Detwiler probably could be of more value to another team than he is to the Nationals, who have not been able to make him an effective piece of their staff since moving him to the bullpen. That changed with Detwiler’s command performance in extra innings. But starters, by rule, are harder to come by than relievers, and it’s worth remembering that Detwiler never failed as a starter. Starting in late 2011, Detwiler has been a good, solid starter unless he was injured.

The Nationals have insisted all season that once Detwiler becomes more acquainted with relief, he’ll become a weapon. That happened this week. But given Grace’s strengths, he may be able to fill Detwiler’s so-far minimal role for a fraction of the price. For a team desperate for starting help – and it wouldn’t even need to be an immediate contender, because Detwiler still has one more year of team control – Detwiler could be appealing trade bait.. Almost halfway through the season, the Nationals’ idea to turn him into a left-handed, late-inning option hasn’t worked out as they thought.

Either way, Grace’s performance this season has impressed the Nationals. Even if he isn’t in their plans, he is certainly on their radar.

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