A bad dessert can wipe out a great meal.
Last year, the Nationals’ relief corps almost shut down the season before it began. The bullpen ERA of 5.66 was the worst in the majors, and the unit’s 29 blown saves was the second-highest total in the big leagues.
Even in the team’s postseason run, the Nationals were aided by relief appearances from starters Stephen Strasburg (three scoreless innings in the Wild Card win), Max Scherzer (one scoreless frame in the NLDS Game Two victory) and Patrick Corbin (five appearances, including three scoreless innings in Game Seven of the World Series).
So, manager Davey Martinez has his work cut out for him in 2020.
He starts with a solid base: Sean Doolittle saved 29 games in 2019 and was an All-Star the previous season, Daniel Hudson went 3-0 with a 1.44 ERA and six saves after joining the Nats in a midseason trade, and Will Harris posted a 1.50 ERA in 60 innings over 68 games last year with Houston.
“Those guys are going to be the constants in the back end of the bullpen, but with that being said, you got (Tanner) Rainey, who has pitched in the playoffs and the World Series for us,” Martinez said. “You got (Wander) Suero, who did a good job and ate a lot of innings for us.”
Suero led the team with 71.1 relief innings in 2019. Harris is the new kid in town, with the Nats becoming his fourth major league team.
The former Astro tried to put his finger on what makes a bullpen’s whole greater than the sum of its parts.
“I think it’s having a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things has produced the best results,” Harris said. “Having guys that can pick one another up and do different things to help kind of dissect and navigate a lineup.”
Veteran Javy Guerra posted an ERA of 4.86 over 40 games last season for the Nationals, while tossing two innings over three frames in the World Series.
“I think for the most part we collectively sat in that room and believed in each other,” Guerra said. “The numbers are the numbers … but we controlled everything in our room and knew what we had to do as a group.”
The 34-year-old is back with the team on a minor league contract with a Spring Training invitation and returns to a crowded clubhouse.
One offseason acquisition is Ryne Harper, who also revealed what he thinks is essential to building a successful bullpen.
“You’re like brothers out there. You develop relationships. You get real close with one another, and I think that’s important too,” Harper said. “You’re pulling for another guy; you’re helping another guy between outings.”
Hunter Strickland and Roenis Elias could prove to be two X-factors in 2020. Both were added via midseason moves from 2019 that didn’t pan out as well as the Nats would have liked to due to injuries.
“Elias got hurt and Strickland was hurt before we got him,” Martinez said. “I’m looking forward to watching those two guys pitch to their capabilities. Strickland was a closer at one point and from what I’ve seen, he’s thrown the ball really well early in camp.”
One factor that may ease the 2020 bullpen’s growing pains: starting pitching.
Last year’s rotation ranked second in the majors in ERA and quality starts. With multiple off days (six before May 1), Martinez could shorten his rotation, which would allow the team’s fifth starter (likely Joe Ross, Erick Fedde or Austin Voth) to provide another option in the pen.
One thing’s for certain: Anyone watching the season opener at Citi Field will sit up and take notice when the Nats bullpen percolates for the first time in 2020.