Those were the first steps toward Hand agreeing to a one-year, $10.5 million deal with the Washington Nationals on Sunday. Those terms, confirmed by a person with direct knowledge of them, do not include any options. The contract deepens a bullpen that already had Daniel Hudson, Will Harris and Tanner Rainey for the late innings. And it continued a busy offseason for the Nationals, who traded for Josh Bell, then signed Kyle Schwarber, Jon Lester, Ryan Zimmerman and Hand, a 30-year-old who led the American League in saves and games finished in 2020.
Hand’s agreement with Washington was first reported by ESPN. It is contingent on Hand passing a physical in the coming days. The New York Mets were long rumored as front-runners to sign Hand. But the Nationals saw a chance to pad their bullpen after adding Bell, Schwarber, Lester and Zimmerman on team-friendly deals. Those players will make a guaranteed $22.35 million on their current contracts with the Nationals. Hand’s deal means it took close to $33 million for General Manager Mike Rizzo to rip through his to-do list.
The Nationals still need a second catcher to pair with Yan Gomes. For now, though, Rizzo has built a bullpen to complement a strong rotation. It should keep the Nationals in the thick of a very competitive National League East.
Rizzo has hitched Washington’s identity — and the bulk of its payroll — to starters Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. The bullpen behind them has often looked like a carousel. Then, before last season, Rizzo added Harris (for three years and $24 million) and re-signed Daniel Hudson (at two years and $11 million) to give Manager Dave Martinez three high-leverage options. The third was lefty Sean Doolittle, who remains a free agent. Hand has taken his role.
In recent years, Hand has closed, worked multiple innings and matched up with left-handed hitters. He is the sort of rubber-armed chameleon that fits in any bullpen. Lefties and righties have both struggled to hit him since he became a full-time reliever in 2016 with the San Diego Padres. He has since gone to three All-Star Games and compiled a 2.70 ERA in 320 innings. He has struck out 12.2 batters per nine innings in that stretch, pairing a biting slider with his low-90s fastball.
He arrives in Washington after Rainey took a giant step. Rainey, who is still making a pre-arbitration salary, was the club’s best reliever in 2020. Kyle Finnegan, another young righty, put himself in the mix to make the team as a middle reliever. The Nationals underachieved last year, finishing 26-34 because of injuries, an unbalanced offense and subpar seasons from Scherzer, Corbin, Hudson and Doolittle, who struggled before straining his oblique in September. Harris came around after a rough start. The choppy, pandemic-altered schedule was hard on pitchers, and that was especially apparent in Washington.
But that’s another way Hand was an outlier this past summer. He thrived for an Indians team more interested in saving money than trying to win. With the Nationals, he will headline a bullpen that includes Hudson, Harris, Rainey, Finnegan, Wander Suero and one of Joe Ross, Erick Fedde or Austin Voth in long relief. Martinez will be asked to name a closer in the early days of spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla. It’s a safe bet that he will deflect, saying he has three pitchers — even four — to count on for big outs. The “closer” label is always discussed more externally than it is among teams.
Adding Hand leaves one spot for Kyle McGowin, Ryne Harper, Dakota Bacus and lefty Sam Clay to joust for in West Palm. Perhaps nonroster invitees such as Javy Guerra or veteran lefty Luis Avilán could make a case. Or perhaps, sensing opportunity in a stalled market, Rizzo will sift through the dozens of free agent relievers still likely to sign for low-cost, one-year deals.
It was only three months ago that Hand was floating in the ether, stuck between a standout season and his next job. The Nationals coughed up an extra $450,000 to let their winter shake out before circling back to him. And the pairing made sense, then and now.