For diehard and longtime Nationals fans, the left-handed reliever the team signed in December probably sounded familiar. Bill Bray, for those who remember, was the Montreal Expos’ first-round pick in 2004, the last one before the team moved to Washington the following year and became the Nationals.
After a 2006 trade sent him to Cincinnati, Bray spent six seasons with the Reds before returning to Washington this winter with a one-year minor league deal. And now, Bray, 29, has a fruitful opportunity before him: The Nationals have only one left-handed reliever on the major league roster, and Bray will enter spring training with an invitation to big league camp and the chance to make the team as the bullpen’s left-handed specialist.
The Nationals have whiffed on their pursuit of four other left-handed relievers so far this winter, balking at the prices and terms in market that is paying southpaw relievers handsomely. But the Nationals’ answer for a second lefty reliever may be already under their control. (With Adam LaRoche’s re-signing with the Nationals, they could also acquire left-handed reliever help in a trade for Michael Morse.)
“I knew going into this offseason, as long as I’m healthy and pitching like I’m capable, I’ll make the team,” said Bray in a phone interview from his home outside of Dallas. “The competition is not something that worries me. .. And they do need left-handed help.”
Coming off an injury-filled 2012 season, Bray still had interest from as many nine teams. But the Nationals stood out. He was the franchise’s first-round pick (13th overall) in the 2004 draft, he played in their minor league system, he pitched in RFK Stadium and was familiar with some of the players and coaches that remained.
“It just seemed liked the best opportunity, after weighing all the factors, the bullpen, the team is excellent,” said Bray, who wasn’t offered a major league deal by any of the teams pursuing him. “I’m comfortable with the coaching situation … I loved playing in D.C. a few years ago. The Nationals were aggressive and kept in contact and telling me how much they wanted me. It make me feel comfortable. I’ve always told myself I’d jump at the opportunity to play in D.C. again.”
Bray reached the majors with the Nationals in 2006, punched up a 3.91 ERA in 19 games before being shipped off mid-season to the Reds in a seven-player trade that brought Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez and Ryan Wagner to the Nationals. From that brief stint with the Nationals, Bray remembers Roger Bernadina, Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman, who he also played against in high school in Virginia Beach.
Bray, who played for William & Mary in college, was also on the same team representing MLB along with Ross Detwiler and Michael Morse in the Taiwan All-Star Series in 2011. Steve McCatty was Bray’s pitching coach for the Nationals then-Class AAA affiliate in New Orleans, and Rick Eckstein was also the hitting coach. The familiarity with the players and coaches were big factors in his decision to sign here, Bray said.
But Bray has also watched the Nationals transform from themselves from one of the worst teams in baseball and under the ownership of MLB into the team with the best record in baseball last season and with a bright future.
“It’s been fun watching them turn into of the elite organizations,” he said. “… The market that team is in, it’s one of the biggest in the country and one of the best. It’s a complete 180 (degree) situation. You could see it coming.”
For now, Bray has been working diligently to ensure his body has recovered and is ready for next season. In his six years in the majors, Bray has only pitched two full seasons because of injury. When he pitches, he is a strong left-handed reliever: a 2.87 ERA in 63 games in 2008 and 2.98 ERA in 79 games in 2011. Left-handed batters hit .218 off of Bray in his career.
But Bray has often been hurt in his career. Previously, he dealt with shoulder and elbow injuries. Last season, he pitched in a career-low 14 games (5.19 ERA) because of groin and back injuries.
Bray said he felt a pop in his groin area during a bullpen session early during last year’s spring training and never felt the same after. He tried rest and then pitching through it, but the injury wrecked havoc on his delivery. He began overcompensating for the lack of push-off from the mound from his lower body and that led to a back injury. “It kind of like snowballed on me the harder i tried,” he said. “It wasn’t pretty.”
Bray didn’t require surgery for his injuries last season, and instead rested and has been playing catch every day, working out five times a week, doing yoga and seeing a physical therapist.
“I’m not expecting any issues,” he said. “I always knock on wood when I say that. I’m looking forward to and coming in and playing for the Nationals. … They told me they envisioned me as a left-handed specialist. When healthy, I think I’m one of of the best lefties in the major leagues. My problem was just staying on the field. Getting guys out wasn’t a problem.”