The Washington Nationals, who have tantalized fans this winter with futile pursuits of big-name closers, finally signed one Tuesday afternoon — though he is 42 years old and far from a sure ninth-inning thing. Joe Nathan, a six-time all-star with the Twins and Rangers, has 377 saves. But he has made 11 big league appearances in the past two seasons, has two Tommy John surgeries on his well-worn right arm, and will begin the season with a minor league deal that comes with an invitation to major league spring training. The team also announced a similar deal with veteran right-hander Matt Albers, another candidate to provide much-needed relief depth.
Albers and Nathan are the type of players for whom the Nationals hunt this time of year — low-risk, long-resume veterans who can compete for a relief job in spring training. Two seasons ago they gave another former all-star closer, Heath Bell, a try, though he ultimately did not make the major league roster. Last year, veterans such as Burke Badenhop, Sean Burnett and Matt Belisle came into camp competing for space. Belisle stuck.
Nathan had the second Tommy John surgery of his career in April 2015 after throwing just four pitches. He had the first in 2010, after two consecutive all-star seasons with the Twins. He joined the Rangers before the 2012 season and recovered his all-star form under pitching coach Mike Maddux, with whom he will be reunited in D.C. The Cubs and Giants gave Nathan a try last season, and he did not allow a run in 6 1/3 major league innings.
In his prime, Nathan’s fastball sat in the mid-90s, but he was an all-star with an average fastball velocity of 92.3 in 2013. His velocity was around 91.3 during his brief big-league stint last year, and his slider had lost about two miles per hour from his career average.
Albers, meanwhile, is a less-heralded journeyman, a candidate for the kind of middle relief spot Belisle filled last season. The righty has played 11 big league seasons for seven different teams and made 452 appearances, most recently for the White Sox, for whom he struggled to a 6.31 ERA last season. Albers joins righties Jacob Turner and Mike Broadway and lefthander Neal Cotts, among others, as relievers who will be auditioning for a spot when spring training begins in two weeks. His fastball sat in the low 90s last season.
Nathan seems unlikely to repaint the Nationals’ closing picture, though he might be a longshot to add depth if the Nationals see life in his well-traveled stuff. Shawn Kelley also has two Tommy Johns, but a decade less wear, on his arm. Blake Treinen has a 98-mph sinking fastball with which to compete for the position. What Nathan has that they do not, however, is experience under pressure. Still, unless he looks entirely rejuvenated, Nathan seems more likely to help at times other than the ninth inning.
Exactly how many spots will be available in the bullpen as spring training begins? As of right now, Kelley, Treinen, and lefties Sammy Solis and Oliver Perez would be the only locks. Koda Glover seems likely to earn a spot if the torn labrum in his hip is healed. The Nationals generally carried seven relievers last year, and sometimes three of them were left-handed. But as of now, two spots seem to be open, though Trevor Gott was the last righty cut from the opening day roster last year, and seems likely to make a run at a bullpen spot again.
Gott, like Kelley, Treinen and Glover, has a fastball in the mid-90s. Both Albers and Nathan would provide a slightly different look, which could provide an effective complement to those four. The Nationals also agreed to a minor league deal with Vance Worley over the weekend, another veteran right-hander who could push for a spot as a long-man and spot starter.
So while neither Nathan nor Albers brings immediate assurance to the back of the Nationals’ bullpen, they both have a chance to provide depth, which may prove more important to the long-term health of the Nationals’ relief corps in the end.