WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Washington Nationals agreed to a major league deal with Tony Sipp, according to a person familiar with the situation, adding a left-handed option to a bullpen that badly needed one. The contract is for one year and $1 million, with a $250,000 buyout on a mutual option for 2020, and will be official once Sipp passes a physical.
“He’s been a guy we’ve identified and we think is a really good value for us,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said Wednesday morning. “It was time for him to sign, and we have opportunities for him. This is one of the places he wanted to be. He has a chance to win, and he’s been used to that.”
Sipp, 35, had a 1.86 ERA in 38⅔ innings with the Houston Astros last year. The Nationals reached the agreement to add him just four days after they released left-handed reliever Sammy Solís, who had been with the organization since 2010 and struggled for most of last year. The release of Solís thinned Washington’s bullpen to two lefties — closer Sean Doolittle and Matt Grace — making Sipp a logical, low-cost signing after he made $6 million last year. By releasing Solís by this past Saturday, the Nationals saved about $708,000 of the $850,000 they initially agreed to pay him for 2019. That money was then allocated to the 10-year veteran coming off recent success.
The Nationals had downplayed the need for a lefty matchup specialist in recent weeks, but that is what Sipp provides. He held left-handed hitters to a .191 average and .557 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 76 plate appearances last year. Twenty-eight of his 2018 appearances lasted two outs or fewer, showing how the Astros used him in very specific situations. That could be crucial in a National League East division with star left-handed hitters such as Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper, Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman and New York Mets infielder Robinson Canó. Expect to see a lot of Sipp against Harper in the coming season. The Nationals and Phillies are scheduled to meet 19 times starting April 2 in Washington.
“They really want that matchup lefty guy,” said Doolittle, adding that the Nationals have sought one since he joined the team in July 2017. “And I think you look around our division now, each team has at least one or two big lefties. Unfortunately, he’s going to have his work cut out for him. Welcome to the NL East. Here’s Harper, here’s Freeman, here’s Canó, and I’m probably forgetting somebody. There’s a lot of big lefty bats in this division. So he’s going to be busy.”
By bringing in Sipp, their eighth free agent signing of a seemingly never-ending offseason, the Nationals have all but solidified their bullpen. The Nationals had been in contact with Sipp’s representation over the past couple of weeks, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiations, and were unsure whether they wanted to commit to a major league contract. Now that they did, Sipp joins Doolittle, setup man Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Grace, Justin Miller and Wander Suero. There have been recent rumblings of the Nationals trying to sign free agent closer Craig Kimbrel, with Washington showing interest as recently as last week, and the Sipp signing wouldn’t affect that situation.
The Nationals would need to spend above the competitive balance tax threshold if they want Kimbrel, a decision that ultimately would be made by the team’s ownership group. Cot’s Baseball Contracts projects the Nationals to be about $10 million beneath the threshold, leaving enough room for in-season acquisitions but not enough to sign a pitcher such as Kimbrel without paying overages. The $1.25 million guaranteed to Sipp only has a negligible effect on their overall payroll.
“We’re under the [competitive balance tax], and that’s where we want to stay,” Rizzo said Wednesday. “That’s something that we’ve been discussing all offseason.”
As of Monday, Manager Dave Martinez thought there could be two open bullpen spots with the regular season nearing. One of those will go to Sipp. The other probably belongs to Suero, but that is less clear because the 27-year-old right-hander can still be optioned to the minor leagues without the Nationals placing him on waivers. Vidal Nuño III appeared to have a good shot at making the team once Solís was released. But Nuño, a veteran lefty on a minor league deal, probably will be blocked by Sipp. Nuño has two opt-outs in his contract — on March 27 and June 15 — if he is not on the 25-man roster.
With Sipp, the Nationals are hoping for the 2018 version and not the pitcher from the two previous seasons. He struggled with the Astros across 2016 and 2017, with a 5.33 ERA in 81 innings, but recovered with a strong year and made Houston’s postseason roster last fall. Those down seasons were the first two of a three-year deal worth $18 million, one he lived up to only at the tail end. The Nationals’ gamble is not nearly as expensive. If Sipp pitches the way he did last year or something close to it, the Nationals will have what their bullpen has missed since Matt Thornton joined them for the final weeks of 2014 and 2015 or when Solís found a rhythm a year after that.
“You can’t have enough lefty specialists. You really can’t,” Martinez said. “With the left-handed bats we have in our division, it will be nice to have that guy.”
Washington had not expressed that pressing need for a left-handed reliever to, above all else, match up with good left-handed hitters. Now it has one. And until the Nationals explore the in-season market for peripheral additions, their final puzzle piece may be in place.