It seemed that the Harris deal may have taken the Nationals out of the running for Hudson, an occasional closer this past season who recorded the final out of the World Series on Oct. 30. The Nationals were willing to offer multiple years, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiations, but there was a hang-up with the total value of the contract. But once Washington bumped that to $11 million and made it so Hudson could earn an additional $1 million in performance bonuses, he was ready to return.
This was the outcome Hudson wanted from the beginning of the offseason. He will be 33 in March, has come back from two Tommy John surgeries and was looking to cash in on his best season since becoming a reliever full-time in 2015. And he preferred to do it with the Nationals, the team that acquired him at last July’s trade deadline and rode his arm to a championship.
Hudson notched four postseason saves and finished a 6-2 win over the Houston Astros in Game 7. He now figures to be a hybrid reliever alongside Harris and Sean Doolittle, who returns as the incumbent closer, but could also be used in a variety of situations.
Manager Dave Martinez will have the ability to cycle Doolittle, Harris and Hudson throughout the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. The bullpen will then be filled out by some combination of Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, Hunter Strickland, Roenis Elías and a long man, whether that’s Javy Guerra making the most of a minor league deal or whoever doesn’t join the rotation among Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth.
The Nationals have been quite busy since bringing in the 35-year-old Harris last week. They added infielder Starlin Castro to a two-year, $12 million deal. They brought back Asdrúbal Cabrera, another versatile, veteran infielder, on a one-year contract worth $2.5 million. And now, with Hudson on the payroll for 2020, one certainty has come into focus: If the Nationals wanted to sign Josh Donaldson, the market’s best-available third baseman, they would have to exceed the competitive balance tax threshold, set at $208 million for next season.
It is, therefore, seeming less likely that Donaldson lands in Washington, though the possibility remains in play. Initial offers were around four years and $100 million, and the asking price has reportedly risen in recent weeks. The Nationals did stay under the threshold last season, resetting the overage tax to 20 percent, meaning they could be more inclined to go past it in 2020. Yet signing Castro, Cabrera and Hudson seemed to activate a backup plan in which Anthony Rendon is replaced internally — or via trade — and a stacked rotation is complemented by a much-improved bullpen.
Washington’s bullpen ERA last season, 5.66, was the worst ever for a playoff team. The Nationals had added relievers Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough and Tony Sipp the previous offseason, but none of them was with the club past Aug. 1. Rosenthal and Barraclough didn’t cut it as setup men, with Rosenthal losing all command of his pitches and Barraclough never finding his stride. Sipp battled injures and was ineffective as a lefty specialist. The bullpen was a carousel until Hudson, Strickland and Elías were added at the deadline, and, in October, the Nationals basically used six arms — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sánchez, Hudson and Doolittle — en route to a championship.
They are bringing back the same dominant rotation featuring Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Sánchez. Now they are assembling a bullpen to better back it up. Relievers are volatile from season to season, which is why General Manager Mike Rizzo often waits to build one on the fly. Rosenthal, Barraclough and Sipp were only the latest cautionary tales.
But this winter’s moves offer more promise, even if it’s tempered by how relievers trend. Rosenthal had missed a full season following Tommy John surgery. Barraclough was coming off an up-and-down season, with soaring highs and concerning lows. And Sipp was 36 and nearing the end of his career. Harris, though 35, led all American League relievers with a 1.50 ERA last season. He has made 60 or more appearances in six of the past seven seasons. Hudson, though in his early 30s, has topped 40 appearances in each of the past five years. He finished 2019 with a 2.47 ERA in 73 innings for the Nationals and Toronto Blue Jays, and, like Harris, had a knack for escaping jams.
Hudson became the Nationals’ de facto closer when Doolittle went on the injured list in August. Doolittle was hampered by right knee tendinitis, and a heavy workload to that point of the year — with 52 innings on Aug. 17 — led to him requiring a two-week break. Hudson was handed the ninth inning, but he repeatedly told reporters he preferred to do anything else. Once Doolittle returned, they split closing duties throughout the title run.
So a year after cycling options and begging for something to stick, Martinez gets durability and versatility and, on a given night, has three relievers who can close. Only results will matter from here. But the difference between this bullpen and the one that entered last season appears to be night and day.