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Nationals and reliever Sean Doolittle agree to minor league deal

The 36-year-old lefty is still recovering from the internal brace procedure he underwent on his elbow back in July. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Just hours after the official start of Major League Baseball’s offseason, the Washington Nationals announced that reliever Sean Doolittle will return on a minor league deal that includes an invitation to spring training. Years of familiarity meant little time was wasted.

Doolittle, 36, is still recovering from the internal brace procedure he underwent on his left elbow in July. He opted for that surgery instead of Tommy John, hoping to be ready for spring training with Washington or another club. Yet when the regular season ended in early October, Doolittle was only hoping the Nationals would call, unsure if he could fit in their plans again.

A minor league deal comes with no guarantee of making the team in April. Doolittle will have to earn his way into a bullpen typically short on experienced lefties. He bought a house in D.C. this summer and now calls the city his year-round home. For the past few months, he has rehabbed with Seth Blee, the Nationals’ head physical therapist who also sees athletes at a facility in Fairfax County.

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Doolittle began throwing two weeks ago, right on schedule, and says he is progressing well. What that will mean for his arm in March or April remains a guessing game. But the Nationals made a low-cost bet on him being ready to face hitters and prove himself. They signed him to a one-year major league contract in March, seeing him as the perfect fit for a young clubhouse and inexperienced bullpen. Before he injured his elbow, though, he was more than that, retiring 16 of the 17 batters he faced.

In parts of five seasons with the Nationals, Doolittle has a 2.92 ERA in 148 innings. He often has battled injuries in that stretch, yet the internal brace procedure was the first major operation on his elbow. Doolittle’s highlight with Washington was helping the team win the World Series in 2019. He finished four of the 12 wins needed for that championship.

Bringing back Doolittle shouldn’t preclude the Nationals from surveying the left-handed reliever market this winter. If they continue to sign players with the aim of flipping them at the trade deadline — as they attempted to do with Nelson Cruz, Steve Cishek and César Hernández in 2022 — reclamation relievers make sense. At the onset of free agency, it feels safe to pencil in Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey and Carl Edwards Jr. for the Opening Day bullpen. Tanner Rainey, once a fixture of such projections, underwent Tommy John surgery in early August and should be recovering through spring. The rest of the spots should be up for grabs.

On Sunday morning, Doolittle became a free agent with Cishek, Will Harris, Hernández, Erasmo Ramírez, Joe Ross and Aníbal Sánchez. Cruz joined that list Sunday afternoon when Washington declined his mutual option for 2023. Subtracting those eight players from the 40-man roster, then adding back those who will soon be activated from the 60-day injured list, puts it at 41. Turnover should begin this week; at least one player has to be immediately removed from the 40-man.

From Monday to Thursday, Mike Rizzo and his inner circle will be in Las Vegas for the annual general managers’ meetings. So that’s where the next step of Washington’s rebuild will take place.

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