WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Hobie Harris isn’t the superstitious type. At least not to the point of declining an interview request because he hasn’t allowed a run for the Washington Nationals this spring.
Eight is the number for the 29-year-old reliever. He has also yielded just one hit and one walk in six appearances. But whether he’ll make the team is somewhat of a complicated question — especially because, by and large, clubs carrying their best 26 players on Opening Day is a complicated myth. Harris is on a minor league contract that included a nonroster invite to spring training. If the Nationals option him to the minors to start the season, he does not have an opt-out until July 15, according to a person familiar with his contract, which he could exercise if he’s not added to the 40-man roster at any point before that date.
But the fine print does include a bit of leverage for Harris, who has bounced among the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Milwaukee Brewers since he was drafted by the Yankees in the 31st round in 2015. According to the person familiar with the terms, Harris has a foreign team inquiry clause, which means he could consider offers from teams in Japan, South Korea or Taiwan if he is not on the major league roster.
Should he be the odd man out, would he head overseas if given the opportunity? Or would he stick around knowing he could be one of the first few relievers in line for a call-up, even if that means beginning the year with Class AAA Rochester?
The best case for Harris is that he never has to make that choice. His splitter, the pitch that caught the front office’s attention over the winter, has played extremely well during exhibitions. The question, then, is if his four-seam fastball is good enough to complement his plus splitter in the majors.
“Look, he’s made it pretty interesting,” Manager Dave Martinez said Monday. “We haven’t made any decisions yet of who we’re keeping, but he’s definitely in the mix.”
With Opening Day looming next week, there are still open spots in Martinez’s bullpen. Five are expected to go to Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, Carl Edwards Jr., Erasmo Ramírez and Thaddeus Ward, whom Washington selected in the Rule 5 draft in December. From there, Anthony Banda could make the cut as the only left-handed reliever remaining in big league camp. After that, Harris, Mason Thompson, Andres Machado, Alex Colomé, Paolo Espino and Wily Peralta are in the picture.
Construction will matter. So, too, will how the Nationals weigh the flexibility with Harris (or Machado) with an upcoming opt-out for Colomé. This is where decisions can go beyond results. Yes, Harris has outpitched the 34-year-old Colomé by every measure. Colomé has allowed six earned runs and walked seven in 8⅔ innings.
But internally, the club could justify keeping Colomé — at least to start the year — because cutting him could mean losing him without seeing how he fares in the regular season. Harris, by contrast, probably would go to the minors and could get flipped in if Colomé struggles. Same with Machado, who was touching 98 mph for Venezuela during the World Baseball Classic and has always had a fan in Martinez.
A key difference between Machado and Harris is minor league options. Harris has all three of his, allowing the Nationals to move him between the majors and minors for the next three seasons, if they choose to, without needing to place him on waivers when he’s taken off the major league roster. Machado has no options remaining, complicating his future with the organization. If he is added to the 40-man roster and removed from it again, he would go on waivers, giving the other 29 teams a chance to scoop him up or trade for him. Harris’s options could lead to a multiyear run with the club.
Regardless of who rounds out the bullpen, the Nationals will need to open spots on their 40-man roster. Chad Kuhl, expected to replace Cade Cavalli in the rotation, would need one. So would Harris, Machado or Banda, or position players Michael Chavis or Matt Adams if Martinez wants them on the bench. Victor Arano’s shoulder impingement is expected to land him on the 60-day injured list alongside Cavalli (Tommy John surgery recovery), Tanner Rainey (also Tommy John recovery) and Stephen Strasburg (continued complications from surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome), according to a person familiar with the situation.
That would clear four spots on the 40-man roster, and Washington could create more by designating others for assignment. So then it comes back to whether there will be shuffling for Harris, the Nationals’ top spring training performer.
Harris ditched his curve before the 2022 season, slimming his arsenal to a splitter, four-seamer and cutter. And toward the end of the year, he upped the usage of his splitter, which he says has velocity and shape similar to a traditional change-up. Against the St. Louis Cardinals on March 12, he threw 11 splitters that averaged 84.2 mph. His other pitches were an even breakdown between four-seamers and cutters.
On Monday, Harris explained that he would like to be 45 percent splitters, 45 percent four-seamers and 8 to 10 percent cutters. When the Brewers suggested he throw more splitters, they pointed to all-star reliever Devin Williams, who features a change-up complemented by a four-seamer, not the other way around. That was counter to how Harris was developed by the Yankees. But he knew his splitter and four-seamer tunnel together, meaning they follow a near-identical path to the plate before darting in opposite directions. Harris has watched Williams closely ever since, including how Williams rode his change-up through a high-pressure jam in the WBC.
“It’s different because he throws a high-spin change-up and I throw a lower-spin splitter,” Harris said. “But as far as a four-seam fastball that we use to complement higher usage of the primary off-speed pitch that we like and just kind of the movement profiles and the separation between the two, [we] are actually very similar.”
Williams is not a bad pitcher to emulate. More than anything, though, Harris wants to join him in the majors soon.
Notes: The Nationals made three more cuts Tuesday, optioning outfielder Stone Garrett and lefty reliever Jose Ferrer to Rochester and reassigning infielder Leonel Valera to minor league camp. Garrett’s exit solidified Alex Call as the fourth outfielder on the major league roster. If Martinez still wants to carry a lefty in the bullpen, Banda is the lone remaining option. …
Josiah Gray threw six scoreless innings against the Cardinals in Jupiter, Fla., yielding four hits, striking out five and walking none on 85 pitches. That slimmed his spring ERA to 0.73 in 12⅓ innings. The Nationals and Cardinals tied, 4-4, despite Washington outhitting St. Louis 15-6. The Cardinals rallied for four runs (two earned) against Peralta in an error-filled eighth.