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How Thad Ward could fit in to the Nationals’ bullpen

The Nationals selected Thad Ward with the first pick of the Rule 5 Draft this week. (Jill Weisleder/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

SAN DIEGO — When the Washington Nationals selected Thad Ward with the first pick of the Rule 5 Draft on Wednesday, the choice fulfilled Manager Dave Martinez’s preference of a pitcher over a position player.

A young pitcher was more likely to make an immediate impact for Washington. There might have been position players with more upside, but those players came with a risk — they might not have been ready for consistent at-bats at the big league level, which could have stunted their development.

So General Manager Mike Rizzo and his staff agreed on what he called their “consensus pick.” Ward will have a chance to join a long list of young hurlers who can prove themselves next year.

“My only goal is to add value to the team. That’s it,” Ward said on Wednesday. “However I can help the team win, I will do. Obviously I’d like to stay as a starter, but it also doesn’t matter that much to me. I just want to go win ballgames.”

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Ward spoke about his six-pitch mix with a four-seam fastball, sinker, cutter, slider, curveball and change-up. The change-up is the newest pitch in his arsenal, a pitch that he hopes to perfect to keep hitters off balance and one that he believes can elevate his chances to stick as a starting pitcher. But Rizzo said, for now, Washington will plan to use Ward as a multi-inning reliever. That will also help the club ease him in; Ward threw just 51⅓ innings after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2021.

Ward has to remain on the active 26-man roster, so one piece of the bullpen is set, barring an injury. Projecting the rest of it can be difficult at this point in the offseason, but here’s a look at where things stand.

Tanner Rainey, the team’s closer at the start of the 2022 season, is recovering from Tommy John surgery and won’t be ready for Opening Day. The back end of the bullpen will likely be held down by some combination of Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr. and Hunter Harvey. Finnegan is a staple of the bullpen. Edwards and Harvey were both acquired last offseason after battling injuries with previous teams but performed at a high level for most of the season.

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Andrés Machado has a strong shot to make the Opening Day roster; he didn’t allow an earned run in his final 17 appearances. It’s also likely that Sean Doolittle, who signed a minor league deal at the beginning of the offseason, will be on the roster if he emerges from spring training healthy. Doolittle underwent an internal brace procedure for an injured elbow last year.

That, hypothetically, leaves three spots open in the 2023 bullpen. The remaining fringe candidates on the 40-man roster are Cory Abbott, Victor Arano, Matt Cronin, Paolo Espino, Reed Garrett, Mason Thompson and Jordan Weems. Cronin was just protected from the Rule 5 Draft and could make the majors at some point next year, but finished last season with Class AAA Rochester and has three option years remaining.

Abbott and Espino were both used last season as long relievers, the same role Ward will likely fill this coming year. Martinez recent said Abbott and Espino performed well last season; he envisioned using one as a starter and the other out of the bullpen in 2023, but it’s possible one pitcher could get squeezed out.

Washington’s roster is at 39 players, which means it could still sign a reliever. The Nationals signed Hobie Harris to a minor league deal this offseason and he could earn a spot with a strong camp.

Regardless of what moves Washington ultimately makes, the club has a handful of options to choose from as they look to fortify a bullpen that was overworked last season. And Ward will be in the mix, with a shot to show why he was worth the first selection on Wednesday.

“I’m still definitely very, very excited for the opportunity and to even have the consideration for that spot with the active roster, it’s awesome,” Ward said. “Again, I keep saying I’m very excited about it. I’m at a loss for words for that. But I still do have to go out and make that team and still have to put my best foot forward, so that’s kind of where my focus is.”

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