When the Washington Nationals remade their bullpen at the 2019 trade deadline, they were interested in right-handed reliever Alex Colomé, then a dominant closer for the Chicago White Sox. And while discussions with the White Sox ultimately faded, Colomé might finally pitch for the Nationals after signing a minor league contract with the club Friday.
The deal comes with a spring training invite and no guarantee that he will make the Opening Day roster. Colomé, 34, is certainly not the pitcher he was 3½ years ago. Last season, in 47 innings with the Colorado Rockies, he was often knocked around and finished with a 5.74 ERA. His strikeout rate (14.9 percent) was his lowest since becoming a full-time reliever.
In the past, General Manager Mike Rizzo wanted to add Colomé for a title push. These circumstances could be considered the direct opposite.
But if Colomé is solid in February and March, Washington could gain an experienced arm for little cost. With Tanner Rainey still recovering from Tommy John surgery and Andrés Machado off the 40-man roster after he was designated for assignment this month, there is room to stick in the Nationals’ bullpen.
Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr., Hunter Harvey, Erasmo Ramírez and Thad Ward should have solidified spots. After that? Veterans such as Colomé and Sean Doolittle have a chance to pull up a chair, especially because some of the younger pitchers — Mason Thompson, Victor Arano, Jordan Weems — have options remaining, meaning they could move between the majors and minors throughout 2023 without going on waivers. Cory Abbott and Paolo Espino could also be in the mix as multi-inning relievers.
At his best, Colomé, a native of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, was a reliable closer for the Tampa Bay Rays. He was an all-star in 2016 and led the majors with 47 saves a year later. During the abbreviated pandemic season, he worked 22⅓ innings for the White Sox and yielded just two earned runs. With the Minnesota Twins in 2021, Colomé had a disastrous April before recovering for an average year. Then with the Rockies, his numbers plummeted, though the altitude and dimensions at Coors Field seemed to play a limited part in that.
Colomé’s home splits in 2022: 106 batters faced, .299 batting average, .349 on-base percentage, .526 slugging percentage (.875 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.)
And his road splits: 109 batters faced, .301 batting average, .389 on-base percentage, .441 slugging percentage (.830 OPS).
Pitching for Colorado, Colomé threw his cutter 84 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs. That was 14 percentage points higher than his next highest rate across a full season. His four-seam fastball, his second and only other pitch, was crushed by opponents for a 1.059 slugging percentage.
In recent springs, the Nationals used cutter-heavy righties (Wander Suero, Will Harris) as justification for not having many lefty relievers, saying they like how their cutters run inside on left-handed batters. And while that might have seemed like a half-baked explanation for a roster flaw, Manager Dave Martinez could soon enlist Colomé to the cause. With less than three weeks until pitchers and catchers report, Matt Cronin, 25, and Jose Ferrer, 22, are the only left-handed relievers on the 40-man. Neither has appeared in the majors.
One other note on Colomé: He averaged 23.6 seconds between pitches last year, tying him for the 11th-slowest tempo among qualified pitchers. This tempo metric from Statcast measures the time elapsed between the release of one pitch and the next. Major League Baseball’s new 15-second pitch clock, however, will start once the pitcher receives the ball from the catcher and end once he begins his delivery.
Colomé’s “timer equivalent” tempo was an average of 17.6 seconds in 2022. So if he does make the Nationals, he has even more adjusting to do.