Finnegan was a standout closer across Class AA and AAA in 2019. He made 21 appearances at each level, splitting his season in half, and finished with a combined 2.31 ERA in 50 ⅓ innings. His numbers were most impressive in the Pacific Coast League, in which AAA hitters typically feast. Finnegan pitched 28 innings for the Las Vegas Aviators, allowed three homers — the only three he yielded all year — and had a 2.89 ERA by summer’s end. His fastball reaches the high-90s and he pairs it with a slider, a pitch he has struggled to command throughout his career.
Washington looks for relievers with high strikeout rates, and Finnegan struck out 12.79 batters per nine innings in 2019. His walk rate jumped when he moved up a level, from 2.78 to 3.86, but the Nationals always see swing-and-miss stuff as a needed tool for high-leverage relievers. That was their calculus when they acquired Tanner Rainey from the Cincinnati Reds in a trade for Tanner Roark last December. And it certainly factored into their thinking with Finnegan, who does come with a bit of risk.
The question with Finnegan, given his impressive showing last year, is why didn’t he stick with the Athletics? It is rare to give a major league contract to a pitcher who has never appeared in a major league game. But Finnegan’s value increases, if only marginally, with his three remaining minor league options.
The Nationals will be able to freely move him between the majors and minors and not risk him going on waivers and jetting for another club. Washington, like most teams, likes to fill out its 25-man roster with optionable relievers and bench players. Both Rainey and Wander Suero, two of the Nationals’ middle relievers throughout their World Series run, also go into 2020 with minor league options.
In Finnegan’s case, he will compete to make an Opening Day bullpen that is still coming together. It will be anchored by closer Sean Doolittle, and the only other locks appear to be Rainey, Suero and Roenis Elías, who is arbitration eligible. They signed Hunter Strickland to a one-year, $1.6 million deal earlier this month, but that doesn’t guarantee him a spot come March. Other possibilities are Austen Williams, who missed all of last season after he sprained the AC joint in his right shoulder, and any of Austin Voth, Erick Fedde or Joe Ross, who have bounced between being a starter and reliever. Finnegan is in that mix, and with how often bullpens turn over, he should make his major league debut in 2020.
His arrival comes a day before the annual winter meetings begin in San Diego. The Nationals have made three moves this winter, bringing back catcher Yan Gomes and Howie Kendrick and now signing Finnegan this weekend. Their biggest priorities remain Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon, two franchise pillars who are currently testing the free agent market. Retaining one or both of those players — even if managing principal owner Mark Lerner says getting both isn’t in the budget — will have a great effect on how Washington approaches the rest of the offseason.
They still need to shore up the bullpen and figure out first and second base. The bullpen probably requires another veteran or two and an investment that goes well beyond the Finnegan deal. The Nats could save money on the right side of the infield, with Ryan Zimmerman a possibility on a low-cost contract, and maybe a versatile veteran to play behind top prospect Carter Kieboom at second. But the construction will go sideways if both Strasburg and Rendon leave and the Nationals are left shopping for moon-sized Band-Aids. That’s why the fate of each star will dictate their next steps.
Adding Finnegan bumps the Nationals’ 40-man roster to 30 players. That number will jump to 32 once the Gomes and Kendrick deals become official in the near future.
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