Don’t look now, but the Nats’ bullpen has some serious potential originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
It’s been five years since the Nationals finished a season with an “elite” bullpen.
After Washington emerged as a playoff contender in 2012, it put together five-straight seasons with a reliever ERA below 4.00. The years following have seen the Nationals finish with bullpen ERAs of 4.41 (2017), 4.05 (2018), 5.68 (2019) and 4.68 (2020).
Things were particularly bad in 2019-20. Those two seasons represented the two worst bullpen performances by the Nationals in ERA, WHIP (1.476 in 2019/1.498 in 2020), opponents’ OPS (.800/.750) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.29/2.03) since 2011.
Yet despite recent history, there are reasons to be optimistic that the Nationals’ bullpen will take a step forward in 2021.
Brad Hand has been the Nationals’ most expensive signing of the offseason, inking a one-year, $10.5 million deal to be their primary left-handed option out of the bullpen. He joins the Nationals on the heels of a 2020 season that saw him lead the majors with 16 saves. Only Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Andrew Miller have as good of an ERA (2.70) and K/9 (12.2) among qualified relievers since 2016.
The Nationals will likely mix Hand in the later innings with returning veterans Daniel Hudson and Will Harris as well as rising set-up man Tanner Rainey. Both Hudson and Harris were shaky in 2020, each struggling with home runs and walks but posting strong strikeout numbers.
However, the shortened nature of last season paved the way for some anomalies. Hudson posted a groundball rate of 18.4 percent (career average: 39.2%) while Harris allowed a batting average on balls in play of .353 (career average: .286). Those numbers should revert closer to the mean with a full season in 2021.
Rainey, meanwhile, took a big step forward in his age-27 season by recording a 2.66 ERA and 0.738 WHIP over 20.1 innings with a 14.2 K/9. He stranded 96.2 percent of runners and finished with a .129 BABIP, so some regression is expected. But Rainey showed progress by forcing bad swings while pounding the strike zone at the best rate of his young career. The Nationals hope that with him and their three established veterans pitching to expectations, they have a formidable back-end quartet.
As past Nationals bullpens have shown, stability in the middle innings can have a butterfly effect on success at the end of games as well. Washington looks to be in good shape there, heading into spring training with Kyle Finnegan and Wander Suero locked into middle relief roles.
Finnegan impressed as a rookie in 2020, flashing a sinker in the upper 90s that set up his slider and split-finger fastball well. The results were a lot of groundballs and weak contact with solid strikeout totals. If he can limit the walks, Finnegan has the potential to be a key component of the Nationals’ bullpen.
Suero faces similar expectations. Manager Davey Martinez has relied on him often in high-leverage situations with mixed results. Both will likely have the chance to settle into easier roles before being asked to pitch with the game on the line.
Rounding out the relief corps will be the odd-man-out of the fifth starter competition in spring training — which is expected to come down to Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth — and one other reliever. There will be at least a dozen pitchers competing for that final spot, though lefties Sam Clay and Luis Avilán may have an edge given Hand’s presence as Washington’s only southpaw in the bullpen.
The Nationals’ bullpen issues have plagued them for years. They’re hoping that 2021 will signal a turn for the better with a deeper group than seasons past that carries significant upside. If enough of their relievers pitch up to expectations, the Nationals could have a real weapon for holding onto leads.