Sean Doolittle did not pitch in the Washington Nationals’ win over the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday or in the game before that, and the only reason he pitched in the series opener is that the relievers in front of him couldn’t keep a five-run lead intact.
Each of those instancesmatters — in more ways than one.
Doolittle, the Nationals’ 32-year-old closer, has been overworked this season. The statistics say so. He has mentioned fighting arm fatigue throughout the summer. If the Nationals are to achieve their goals and push deep into October they can’t have Doolittle lessened by the most demanding year of his career. But his 52 appearances, already his second most since 2014, could have additional implications. The Nationals hold a $6.5 million team option on Doolittle for 2020, and there is little chance they will pass that up. Yet there is a chance — a decent chance — his future in Washington could be more complicated.
When Doolittle signed his current contract with the Oakland Athletics in 2014, it included this clause: If he finished 100 games between 2018 and 2019, the team option for 2020 would vest into a mutual option. That means Doolittle could opt to become a free agent this winter. He is at 83 for the two seasons, with a major league-leading 48 this year, and is on pace to hit 100 on the nose.
“I mean, you play this game for a really long time, and any time you have even a little control over your fate, over the direction your career goes, that’s something that we all hope to have,” Doolittle said Tuesday at Nationals Park. “At the very least a couple times in our career. I actually didn’t know what the number was, how many more I needed, until recently. It wasn’t on my mind.”
The left-hander instead has been focused on this season and cleaning up a string of recent appearances that haven’t gone his way. The games finished clause popped onto social media, through the website MLB Trade Rumors, at the end of this past weekend. Doolittle insists he hadn’t considered it much before then. He was hurt for most of last season, nursing a left foot injury, and ended the year with just 35 games finished. Finishing 65 in 2019 once seemed, as he put it, “really, really far-fetched.”
Even the existence of the clause required impressive foresight. Doolittle and his agent, Jason Cook, negotiated a team-friendly contract six years ago. It would pay the then-27-year-old $10.5 million across five seasons and included two team options on the back end. Doolittle was a converted position player, already had suffered a laundry list of injuries and nearly quit and went back to school in 2011. So he was willing to cede control of his career for a half decade of financial security. And he has never thought twice about that decision, especially after spending most of his first arbitration year on the injured list.
But he also wanted to give the deal an opportunity to grow. Doolittle was a setup man going into the 2014 season. He had just three career saves. Yet closers make more money, and Doolittle thought there was a chance he would become one. That led to yearly incentives for games finished in the contract beginning in 2017 and the 100 games finished clause that is relevant all of a sudden.
“If you keep doing your job, you keep working, you keep trying to help the team win, then all the personal stuff, the statistics, the contract stuff, it’ll shake out. It’ll take care of itself,” said Doolittle, who has 27 saves and a 3.73 ERA in 50⅔ innings. “I’ll look up after the season, whenever that may be, and I’ll figure that part out later.”
He often has outperformed his annual salary, and $6.5 million would be below market value for a reliever of his caliber. Doolittle doesn’t say that. Everyone else does. It just hasn’t really mattered until now..
Monday was the latest example of the challenge Manager Dave Martinez faces with Doolittle and his bullpen. Martinez has depended on his closer all season, in all kinds of spots. Of Doolittle’s 48 games finished, only 32 have been save opportunities. There were four-run leads to protect when the bullpen was on a historically bad track. There was a five-run lead in Miami on April 21, when Doolittle finished with the final out after Kyle Barraclough put a pair of runners on base. It seemed like just another reason for Martinez to sweat, and for fans to cover their eyes. But every appearance will count.
So there Doolittle was at the start of this week against the Reds, easing into his warmup pitches, readying for an inning he shouldn’t have had to pitch. The Nationals had led by five runs. Then Tanner Rainey gave up a two-run shot in the eighth to make it a “save opportunity.” Later that night, after Doolittle nearly had his sixth blown save, Martinez was asked whether he’d consider another reliever there to get Doolittle some rest. The bullpen was retooled with Daniel Hudson, Hunter Strickland and lefty Roenis Elías at the trade deadline. All three, along with Fernando Rodney, have experience closing games.
Yet the manager bristled. He may not need Doolittle in four-run games anymore or to pitch multiple innings, but he is still the guy Martinez wants on the mound in the end. Doolittle will finish games whenever he can, no matter what that could mean.
“If Doo needs a day, he’ll get a day, and then we go somewhere else,” Martinez said. “If Doo is available, Doo’s our closer. I got all the confidence in the world in him.”
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