“This year being what it was, what it is, with covid and the shortened season, I didn’t know what the free agent market was going to look like,” Clay said on a video call with reporters Wednesday. “So, no, I didn’t expect a major league contract, I expected a regular minor league contract, and luckily the Nationals wanted me and were willing to put that up.”
So what was his reaction when the deal was finished?
“It was disbelief, honestly,” Clay added with a smile. “It was not something I expected. My agent had hinted at it, suggested it, that maybe it could happen. But I was shellshocked. I didn’t know what to say.”
For starters, the Nationals need bullpen depth after they demoted relievers James Bourque, Aaron Barrett and Austen Williams in October. And to take that one step further, they really need a reliable lefty or two — or three. That doesn’t mean Clay will be thrust into high-leverage spots in the spring, but with Sean Doolittle a free agent and veterans Roenis Elías and Sam Freeman departing this fall, the Nationals had zero lefty relievers on the 40-man. Now they have one.
Clay arrives after spending seven years in the Minnesota Twins’ system. He was part of their 60-player pool in 2020. He became a free agent in early October. In 2019, when he last faced opposing batters, Clay led all of minor league baseball in groundball rate. He was one of 11 pitchers to log 60 or more innings and not allow a home run. He has yielded only six homers in 405⅓ innings that span his 187 career appearances. He said he has allowed just one homer as a reliever since 2013.
Clay is a sinker-heavy pitcher who throws that pitch, a slider and a change-up. He says he can go to any pitch in any count and has never been considered a lefty-lefty specialist. His success rides on whether he can locate his sinker low in the zone and use it to get groundballs.
“It’s immensely valuable, especially with how baseball is now,” Clay said. “I think there were 1,200 more home runs in 2019 than there were in 2018. . . . So I think being able to keep the ball on the ground and to be able to get outs like that is huge in baseball. You can’t get an out if they hit it over the fence.”
That means Clay has a few attributes the Nationals value in relievers: He keeps the ball in the park. He keeps the ball on the ground. He has some closer experience and often made multi-inning appearances with the Twins’ affiliates. His surface-level numbers look better than Finnegan’s did when the Nationals signed the right-hander last fall. And Finnegan quickly developed into a sound middle reliever — and occasional late-inning reliever — who could stick around in Washington’s bullpen.
It can’t all be good with Clay. If it was, the Twins already would have promoted him, at the very least. He did allow 26 hits in 22⅔ innings with the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings in 2019. At times, his command wavered. But like Finnegan, Clay is a low-cost signing who could outplay his salary. The Nationals were again willing to make that bet.
“It was a little disappointing, obviously,” Clay said of never getting a major league shot with the Twins. But then he quickly looked ahead: “It’s not something that discourages me. It’s something that makes me want to work harder.”
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