It takes a lot of arms to get through a baseball season — even for, and in this case especially for, the reigning World Series champions. But the Nationals should have a much stronger bullpen than they did a spring ago, and that should have trickle-down effects. The addition of Will Harris, the re-signing of Hudson for two years and the return of Doolittle, Suero, Tanner Rainey, Hunter Strickland and Roenis Elías are not only good for the Opening Day roster, but the moves will pad the depth behind those relievers and provide better assurance in the event of injuries or the need for a shake-up.
So what does that depth look like right now?
With rosters expanded to 26 players, the Nationals will consistently carry eight relievers. If the season started today, without further additions or spring training surprises, the bullpen probably would consist of Doolittle, Harris, Hudson, Rainey, Suero, Strickland, Elías and whoever doesn’t make the rotation among Erick Fedde, Austin Voth and Joe Ross. After that, the 40-man roster includes relievers Kyle Finnegan, Ryne Harper, Austen Williams, Aaron Barrett and James Bourque.
Any of them could, in theory, push Elías, Strickland or Fedde/Voth/Ross for one of the final bullpen spots. But they’re more likely a five-pronged insurance plan. Kyle McGowin and Ben Braymer, depth starters on the 40-man roster, could also be emergency relief options. Javy Guerra, a non-rostered member of the World Series team, is on a minor league deal and has a nonroster invitation to spring training. So do veterans Fernando Abad and Kevin Quackenbush.
These are a lot of names that don’t inspire much confidence. But bullpen depth is not supposed to be flashy. It is just has to exist, with doses of potential and experience, and the Nationals are moving in that direction.
Last year’s Plan B was Rainey, Williams, Adams and Bourque, and all were called up, if only briefly in some cases, to fill holes left by injuries and poor performance. The bullpen cycled through Rosenthal (released on June 23), Barraclough (designated for assignment on Aug. 6), Justin Miller (DFA’d on July 29), Sipp (DFA’d on Aug. 2) and Matt Grace (DFA’d on Aug. 30), who all started the season in the bullpen. But because the organizational depth was shoddy — or hurt, in Williams’s case — General Manager Mike Rizzo crashed the in-season market for Fernando Rodney, Guerra, Blazek, Dan Jennings, Jonny Venters, George Kontos and, finally, three deadline deals that netted Hudson, Elías and Strickland.
The result was a bullpen that never found a rhythm. The hope, in 2020, is to avoid such scrambling.
An easy solution would be for the prospective bullpen to stay healthy and effective. But because more than eight relievers will be used this season, it is worth assessing Finnegan, Harper, Williams, Barrett and Bourque of 2019 against Bourque, Williams, Rainey and Adams of 2020.
Rainey was that group’s only viable fill-in last season, appearing in 52 games, finishing with a 3.91 ERA and even pitching 6⅔ innings in the playoffs. Adams got one chance before he landed with the Seattle Mariners, where he found measures of success. Williams missed most of the season with a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder. Bourque, 26 years old, made one appearance, recorded two outs and struggled to find a semblance of command.
That leaves good reason to believe that Finnegan, Harper, Barrett, a healthier Williams and an older Bourque will offer more upside. Finnegan had a 2.31 ERA across two levels of the Oakland Athletics’ organization last year. The Nationals signed him to a major league deal despite him not having a major league appearance. He profiles like Rainey — hard fastball with a slider, high strikeout rate, a few too many walks — and will be a project for the minor league pitching coaches.
Harper arrived in a recent trade with the Minnesota Twins, in which Washington parted with righty Hunter McMahon. Harper was solid for the Twins in 2019, pitching 54⅓ innings with a 3.81 ERA. He is a soft thrower who relies on a mid-70s curveball. He made eight multi-inning appearances, including one that lasted 43 pitches, and could be a versatile arm if needed.
Barrett made an emotional return to the mound in September after missing 3½ seasons after multiple elbow surgeries. His goal now is to go from feel-good story to major league regular, which he had been in 2014. But he, Williams and Bourque are all questions marks heading into spring training. Barrett again has to prove his stuff can hang in the bigs. Williams has to stay healthy and give his fastball-curve mix a chance to excel. And Bourque’s next opportunity will have a lot riding on it.
Uncertainty is expected at these rungs of the roster. The Nationals are just banking on a lot less of it ahead.
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