On Monday afternoon, Manager Dave Martinez confirmed that the Nationals had reached an agreement with Jeffress. Martinez added that Jeffress has to pass coronavirus intake screening and a standard physical. Jeffress will earn $1.25 million with potential incentives if he pitches in the majors for Washington, according to a person with knowledge of the terms. MLB.com was first to report the signing.
“There’s a lot of guys still available out there,” Martinez said when asked why he thought Jeffress was still available on Feb. 22, roughly five weeks before the regular season begins. “We’re just happy we were able to get a deal done with Jeremy. I’m excited that he’s coming, and he’s another guy that can help us in the back end of the bullpen, which is really nice.”
Jeffress had a 1.54 ERA in 22 appearances with the Cubs last summer. His walks and hits per innings pitched was an impressive 0.943. He finished with eight saves and had four appearances that lasted four outs or more. That was a major rebound from his numbers with the Milwaukee Brewers the year prior — and much closer to how he looked while thriving with the Brewers in 2018. But the sample was small and included concerns.
As he did in 2019, when he posted a 5.02 ERA in 52 innings, Jeffress allowed a high rate of line drives last year. His walk rate jumped to 4.6 per nine innings. He typically gives up few home runs without striking out hitters too often. His mix of sinkers, splitters and curveballs works best when he pounds the lower half of the strike zone. Grounders are his friend. That leaves a thin margin for error with his location, and he gets in trouble when his pitches are even a bit elevated.
“When he’s down, he’s really good,” Martinez said before complimenting Jeffress’s breaking ball. “We want to get him in camp and build him up and get him ready and put him in games.”
Jeffress’s 11-year major league career has also included a handful of suspensions and off-field issues. He served suspensions in 2007 and 2009 for violations of Minor League Baseball’s program for drugs of abuse (not performance-enhancing substances). The Virginia native has detailed using marijuana to combat anxiety induced by headaches and sporadic seizures in the past.
In January 2012, while with the Kansas City Royals, Jeffress was arrested on domestic violence charges for disorderly conduct, assault and criminal damage after what he later described as an argument with his girlfriend. She dropped the charges, and he was sentenced to 20 hours of community service and to attend domestic violence counseling. And in 2016, while playing for the Brewers, he pleaded guilty after a DWI arrest.
Aside from watching Jeffress from the opposing dugout, Martinez interacted with the reliever during all-star week in 2018. The manager was not asked about Jeffress’s transgressions Monday. Martinez did speak well of his character and what he has seen on the mound.
“I’ve always loved him, even though he was on the other side of the field,” Martinez said. “When he came in the game, he brought that spunk. I remember watching him against Juan Soto one day. Him and Juan were battling, and he didn’t give in. I like that about him. You know what you’re going to get from Jeremy. I love that. He brings that attitude to the Nationals now. I think it’s going to be awesome.”
It’s a pretty simple path to the Nationals’ Opening Day bullpen: They have an open spot on their 40-man roster. They also have six relievers on sure-to-solid footing, leaving room for a long man and one more arm. Daniel Hudson, Brad Hand, Will Harris, Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero and Kyle Finnegan make up that six. One of Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth is expected to be the multi-inning guy, depending on who is named the fifth starter. Then Jeffress joins a list of candidates to fill out the staff.
Add Kyle McGowin, Dakota Bacus, Ryne Harper, Sam Clay, Javy Guerra, Luis Avilán and T.J. McFarland to that list. McGowin, Bacus, Harper and Clay are on the 40-man roster. Guerra, Avilán and McFarland are not — and, like Jeffress, would need to be added to the 40-man roster before being activated. Martinez isn’t yet sure how he wants to shape the rest of his bullpen. Performance and injuries should dictate his choices.
On one hand, Jeffress brings another high-leverage, late-inning option to a team built around its top-heavy rotation. The Nationals’ biggest question has long been how to get outs between the seventh and ninth. Jeffress could further enable Martinez to use Hand to match up before the ninth, which is especially important in a division with left-handed hitters such as Freddie Freeman, Bryce Harper and Michael Conforto. But carrying Jeffress would also mean having just one lefty reliever (Hand) and few multi-inning options (Finnegan, maybe Suero, then whoever the long man is).
The need for another lefty is minimal if Washington is confident in Harris’s and Suero’s abilities to work their cutters in on left-handed hitters. The need for another multi-inning arm lowers if Suero can handle that task. Jeffress, while better against righties, has had above-average reverse splits when going well. He provides a way for the Nationals to improve on the surface while complicating their blend of relievers. That’s not a bad problem to have.