That bullpen, in a mercy to mankind, no longer exists. Only Sean Doolittle and Wander Suero remain from Opening Day 2019. The current cast, projected to include Daniel Hudson, Will Harris, Tanner Rainey, Hunter Strickland and, perhaps, left-hander Roenis Elías and Austin Voth, probably will amass an ERA close to 4.66 this season, if you believe the stat projection forecasts on several websites.
If that happens, the simple math says the Nats will allow about 55 fewer runs this season, which will entirely compensate for the loss of Rendon as a free agent to the Los Angeles Angels and perhaps a smidgen more. The Nats, at least on paper (a forgiving surface), then look a great deal like the team that won 93 games last year.
“Last year things were so bad that they couldn’t get worse. The only way to go is up,” said Hudson, who along with Strickland and Elías arrived in July 31 trades. Harris was a three-year, $24 million free agent signing.
“How much better can we be?” Hudson added. “Everybody in this bullpen has a chance to be really, really good.”
Really good — much less “really, really good” — isn’t even necessary.
But what if Hudson is right? That case can be made — without hallucinating.
Stats-based projections tend to be gloomy when viewing pitchers past age 30, anticipating serious declines. For example, Baseball-Reference.com projects the Nats’ back-end trio of Doolittle, Hudson and Harris to have a 3.73 ERA this year despite their combined 2.66 mark last year. Why such a disconnect?
The Nats value such analytics-based evaluation of comparable careers and degradation with age, but they trust scouting and eyesight much more. General Manager Mike Rizzo, maybe trying to tweak Ivy Leaguers with advanced math degrees, says he studies “the back of the baseball card,” as he might have at age 10.
The backs of the baseball cards of those eight men, if you look at every inning they have pitched in the big leagues in the past three seasons, tell a very different story than the projection sites. Since the start of 2017, Harris (2.61) and Doolittle (2.94) are top tier; Hudson (3.54), Strickland (3.64) and Elías (3.29 in a smallish sample size) are quite good, and Suero (4.16) and Rainey (6.51) show promise.
It’s plausible that Hudson (2.47 ERA last year), who says he sometimes has not “trusted my stuff,” has finally gotten his full confidence as his 33rd birthday approaches. With a 96-to-98-mph fastball and a hard slider, plus the memory of saving the National League wild-card game and getting the last three outs of Game 7 of the World Series, Hudson may be his best self now despite a past that is full of trades and a switch from starting to relieving after two Tommy John surgeries.
Mash up some probable innings totals for all of these men, then assume that injuries will force the Nats to use a few undesirables and misfits for 70 innings with a messy 5.00 ERA, and you come up with about a 3.86 bullpen ERA for the 2020 Nats. That is optimistic. But it is within the range of baseball sanity. And its implications for the Nats would be huge — about 100 fewer runs allowed.
If you assume that replacing Rendon’s bat and glove at third base with rookie Carter Kieboom, vet Asdrúbal Cabrera or some committee costs the Nats 50 runs — and that is a big, ugly assumption — then the Nats’ run differential, which was 873-724 last year, would become about 823-624 in 2020.
If you outscore the league by 199 runs, you’re looking at a 100-plus-win team.
Feel free to gasp. I can cook up an 80-82 season, too. This team is very dependent on its Big Three starters and slugger Juan Soto. If injuries hit them, things unravel fast. But everybody already knows that.
However, a cheerful-case near-100-win scenario? You won’t read that anywhere else. (Come on. Be happy. It’s spring training!) The Nats won’t predict it; they’re at 91 wins internally. But what if Rizzo, who built an awful bullpen last year, is back to his usual, solid form? In the 2010s, he constructed six top-10 bullpens and seven with ERAs between 3.00 and 3.56.
“I think we’ll have a good one this year,” he said Sunday. “We like the pieces.”
Okay, let’s back away from the spiked punch bowl of good cheer. What does this bullpen have to do to maximize its raw tools?
If Doolittle, Hudson and Harris stay healthy, they are predictable. The first two are equally good against left- and right-handed hitters, a bigger benefit this season because a new major league rule mandates that every reliever must face three hitters or complete the inning.
The right-handed Harris is even better at dominating left-handed hitters than righties, making him, in effect, a top southpaw.
“That’s how I was used in Houston,” he said.
Rizzo points out that Strickland, with San Francisco in 2018, and Elías, with Seattle in 2019, had seasons with 14 saves. It’s unusual to have five pitchers on one team with closing experience, although a time machine — to transport each to the most efficient part of his career — would be helpful.
“We’re expecting big things in the bullpen,” said starter Stephen Strasburg, who would have won at least 21 games last year, rather than 18, with better work behind him. “Suero and Rainey are still learning about what makes them successful. This year, it’s going to be exciting to see.”
Rainey has the most obvious future-closer potential with a fastball that touched 101 mph in the World Series and a slider that is an even better swing-and-miss pitch. Last year, he emulsified right-handed hitters (.526 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against) but was crushed by lefties (.942), in part because he has no change-up to combat them.
“The problem was execution,” Rainey said.
We’ll see. But that has to improve.
The reliever who fascinates teammates most is Suero, who was used to the point of abuse last season because so many others failed or got hurt. Stats say he has been one of the unluckiest pitchers on balls in play over the past two years and should have a low-3.00s ERA, a run lower than his 4.16 mark. He has freakish (and useful) reverse splits — he has never allowed a homer to a lefty but has given up nine to righties — which make him another kind of southpaw in disguise.
“Wander got a lot of experience last year,” Doolittle said with a laugh. “. . . The movement on his cutter isn’t as late when he’s tired.” But with sensible usage? “He’s nasty. I think he can develop into a weapon in the back end.”
The range of outcomes for this bullpen, especially with five key men from 31 to 35, is extremely wide. If you know the Nats’ bullpen ERA this year, whether it will be more like 5.66, 4.66 or even 3.66, then you can head to Las Vegas now because you probably know whether the Nats will win 80 games, 90 games — or quite a few more than that.