They probably still have to seek another reliever or two. Otherwise, they would need to lean on some mix of Clay, Kyle McGowin, Ryne Harper and Dakota Bacus — or spring training invites such as Javy Guerra or Luis Avilán — to fill out an eight-man bullpen in 2021. Daniel Hudson, Will Harris and Tanner Rainey are the locks. Kyle Finnegan and Wander Suero should be, too. Then one of Joe Ross, Erick Fedde or Austin Voth is likely to serve as a long man, depending on who gets squeezed out of the rotation.
That would leave two bullpen spots for additions or internal competition. And with the Atlanta Braves front-running in the National League East and the New York Mets trading for star shortstop Francisco Lindor last week, additions seem like the better bet. The Nationals’ charge is to win what has become baseball’s most competitive division.
That returning group above — Hudson, Harris, Rainey, Finnegan, Suero — does not include a lefty. Sean Doolittle is a free agent after 3½ years in Washington. Roenis Elías returned to the Seattle Mariners after making just four appearances for the Nationals since he was acquired at the 2019 trade deadline. Clay, 27, is the only left-handed reliever on the 40-man roster.
Manager Dave Martinez has felt little need for a matchup lefty since MLB adopted the three-batter-minimum rule before last season. He also likes how both Harris and Suero use their cutters to attack left-handed hitters, and he often uses those pitches as justification for not carrying more lefties in his bullpen. Harris, 36, has a long track record of excelling against left-handed hitters. Suero, 29, has done so in a smaller sample, at least relative to his results vs. righties.
But the Nationals’ NL East schedule includes regular matchups with Freddie Freeman, Bryce Harper and Michael Conforto. As one Nationals staffer, who isn’t authorized to speak publicly about the team’s needs, put it recently: “It doesn’t hurt to have a good left-handed reliever, especially in this division. You just don’t want to get a lefty for the sake of it and then have him knocked around by Freddie and Harp all year.”
That follows the logic of using Harris, a proven veteran, before chucking Clay on the mound just to satisfy convention. Or the Nationals could deepen their options through free agency. The best available left-handed reliever is Brad Hand, whom the Cleveland Indians put on waivers in October. None of the other 29 teams picked up his $10 million contract option. Hand led the American League by finishing 21 games in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He had a 2.05 ERA in 22 innings and 16 saves to go with a high strikeout rate. In 749 career matchups with left-handed hitters, he has held them to a .552 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
Hand is logical if the Nationals want to spend on a lefty. The relief market, though, has more than 100 available pitchers who fit any budget. The size of it — and the pace it’s moving — makes it hard to decipher which directions teams will go in. The Nationals are no exception.
Former Washington reliever Blake Treinen signed a two-year, $17.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Jan. 5. Ryne Stanek signed a one-year, $1.1 million contract with the Houston Astros on Jan. 7. Liam Hendriks topped them both when he agreed to a three-year, $54 million contract with the Chicago White Sox on Monday. The top remaining relievers are Hand and Alex Colomé, whom Washington nearly dealt for at the 2019 trade deadline and who has always been of interest. Then there’s a huge pool of names.
Doolittle, for example, is just one of many veteran relievers floating through this offseason abyss. He could find a team on a low-cost, short-term deal. Or, if teams stay so resistant to opening their wallets, he may need to fight for a job in spring training. He wouldn’t be close to alone. Teams are choosing from those high-price relievers; a middle-shelf group of Mark Melancon, Brandon Kintzler and Jake McGee, among dozens of others; and guys such as Doolittle, in his mid-30s and coming off a season-ending oblique injury.
The Nationals do have three late-inning arms in Hudson, Harris and Rainey. They have Suero and Finnegan, who ate innings and handled high-leverage situations as a rookie. They have Clay and Harper, a rubber arm fit to swing between the majors and minors. They have McGowin, who excelled in spurts after evolving from ineffective starter to slider-heavy reliever. They have Guerra and Avilán coming to West Palm Beach, Fla. — and most of these relievers, in fact, profile best as backup plans.
After that, they could take their pick from a sputtering market. “Could” is the operative word.