WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Tony Sipp is playing catch-up because his free agency ran into mid-March, and until Wednesday, he was in Missouri City, Tex., waiting for a call.
The left-handed reliever signed with the Washington Nationals that day — on a one-year, $1 million major league deal with a mutual option for 2020 — and now has around three dozen new teammates to meet and a handful of new coaches to work with. Most importantly, he has less than two weeks to get his arm ready for Opening Day. That should be just enough time. He has even lobbied for a shorter preseason in the past.
“It doesn’t take long, but this is definitely uncharted territory for me,” Sipp said Friday morning. “I’ve always felt like spring training is too long, and now it’s put up or shut up because I’ve been screaming this for a long time."
Sipp, 35, spent the past five seasons of his 10-year major league career with the Houston Astros. He signed with the Nationals as a much-needed lefty specialist, a role with a glaring hole after the team released Sammy Solís on Saturday. Solís struggled to get lefties out last season. Sipp held them to a .191 batting average in 76 plate appearances, and that made him a logical final piece of Washington’s busy offseason.
The Nationals’ bullpen otherwise includes closer Sean Doolittle, setup man Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Matt Grace, Justin Miller and, likely, Wander Suero in the last of seven spots. Sipp gives the Nationals a third lefty, joining Grace and Doolittle, as another option against Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper, Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman and New York Mets infielder Robinson Cano, all left-handed power bats in the NL East. The Nationals host the Mets, welcome the Phillies, travel to face the Mets and visit the Phillies for their first four series of the season. They want Sipp to be available for those games but will give him as much time as he needs.
“Biggest thing with him, and I talked to him yesterday, is as much as we want you for Opening Day, you missed significant time in spring training,” Manager Dave Martinez said Friday. “So hopefully you’re ready, but if you’re not, you’re not.”
Martinez added that Sipp could make a few extra appearances in West Palm Beach as minor league camp spills into early April. Sipp had a 35-pitch bullpen session Thursday and, even before he signed, has thrown two per week since early January. But he hasn’t faced a hitter since his last of three American League Championship Series appearances for the Astros in October. And the best way to prepare for games is to throw in them.
It may seem as if Sipp doesn’t need the same six-week-long preparation as most pitchers. The Astros often used him as a matchup specialist in 2018; he faced two or fewer batters in 23 of 54 appearances. Just over half of his outings lasted less than a full inning, and he finished with a 1.86 ERA in 38⅔ innings. But he views himself as more than a one- or two-out pitcher.
Major League Baseball announced a handful of new rules this week, and one of them is a three-batter minimum for all pitchers (unless the pitcher finishes an inning), beginning in 2020. That could eliminate the roster spot for a specialist such as Sipp, mostly called upon to face lefties in high-pressure situations. Yet he spoke as if the change wouldn’t affect him.
“I welcome it. It’s different because it’ll push out the left-handed specialists or righty specialists,” he said. “But with me having the [split-finger fastball] from both sides, it probably … I’ll stick my foot in my mouth because that’s what I’ve always wanted to do: I wanted to face righties. So it forces guys to handle that window instead of just getting out [after] facing one batter.”
However the Nationals use Sipp, they’re betting that last year’s version is the one they will get. Across 2016 and 2017, the first two seasons of a three-year, $18 million contract with Houston, he had a 5.33 ERA in 81 innings. He was left off the postseason roster of the team that won the World Series two falls ago. Then Will Harris, his Astros teammate and throwing partner, spoke up during the next spring training.
Harris told Sipp that his fire was gone. He watched Sipp toss every day and didn’t see any mechanical issues. The problems were elsewhere. It forced Sipp to reflect, and once he revved it back up, his splitter returned and the outs came.
“If someone tells you you’re not intense, it’s almost like they are telling you you’re not trying,” Sipp said. “So it’s just like going out there and just gearing up and making sure that you go out and treat every pitch like it might be your last.”
That is how he and the Nationals expect him to approach this season — not because he has a job to fight for and not because a new rule soon could render his role obsolete. But Washington needs someone to retire lefties — Harper, Freeman, Cano and whomever else — and it needs Sipp to be ready and at his best.