WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Sean Doolittle’s post-spring training plans do not match his initial hopes. He will fly to D.C. with the Nationals, spend a week there with the team and its training staff, then head back south — back here to the club’s West Palm Beach facility — to continue rehabbing a setback in his recovery from elbow surgery. And until he’s ready to join the bullpen, Doolittle officially will be a minor leaguer on the minor league injured list.
That may sound weird for a pitcher who finished four of the Nationals’ wins during their 2019 World Series run. But at 36, Doolittle returned to Washington on a minor league deal in November, leading to a somewhat odd situation. His contract does include an opt-out toward the end of spring training, the type that is typically given to veterans who might want to shop around if they aren’t in line to make the major league club.
But unsurprisingly, he has no interest in exercising it, nor does he have a reason to. He is on the mend still. On Tuesday, he called the opt-out “just boilerplate,” adding that “in reality it doesn’t have to be in there.”
So the Nationals don’t need to clear a 40-man roster spot for Doolittle to begin the season. They would only have to once he proves capable of helping them.
“I wanted to be here with this team — here specifically,” Doolittle said Tuesday. “When we were negotiating my deal, I wasn’t thinking about opt-outs and what might happen if it didn’t work out. I want to win with this team. Right now, I want to maximize my familiarity with the strength staff and trainers. It’s still an ideal situation for me, setback aside.”
Beyond regular work in the weight room, Doolittle played catch with head athletic trainer Dale Gilbert on Monday. If all goes well when he returns to Florida, there will be minor league games to pitch in on the back fields. From there, the next step would be rehab appearances with one of the team’s affiliates. And without Doolittle in the mix for Opening Day — and after the club optioned Jose Ferrer to Class AAA Rochester on Tuesday — Anthony Banda is the only healthy left-handed reliever in big league camp.
Banda, 29, has appeared for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays, New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees over six seasons. Throwing 95 to 98 mph from the left side has yielded many opportunities. Facing the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday, he peaked at 97.9 and mixed 13 four-seamers with five change-ups (plus two breaking balls). In one inning, he walked a batter and did not allow a hit or a run.
Manager Dave Martinez is typically allergic to discussing his Opening Day roster before the team announces it. As such, he would not commit Tuesday to putting Banda on the roster, even after Ferrer headed out. If Banda is left off, it would not be the first time the front office had Martinez manage without a lefty reliever. But however it shakes out, the Nationals need someone to hold Doolittle’s spot until he’s healthy. Then they’ll see whether he can reach a high level again.
“It’s not like my role is just waiting there,” said Doolittle, who retired 16 of the 17 hitters he faced before injuring his elbow last April. “And I know that. We have a lot of good arms in this room.”
Note: Josiah Gray’s cutter appears here to stay. Against the Cardinals on Tuesday, Gray threw 28 cutters, 27 sliders, 22 four-seam fastballs, five curveballs and three change-ups. The cutter is a new pitch, so it was at one point fair to wonder whether he would take it into his second full season.
But after blanking the Cardinals for six innings — granted, a St. Louis lineup without Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado or Lars Nootbaar, among others — Gray was high on the pitch, saying he feels he can throw it in any count. Last season, opponents pummeled Gray’s four-seamer, finishing with a .738 slugging percentage against it. A hard pitch that moved more was at the top of his winter to-do list. This cutter, which averaged 89.7 mph Tuesday, is the result.