Matt Williams and Aaron Barrett first crossed paths in the Arizona Fall League in 2012. Williams, in his first managing gig at any level of the game, and Barrett, then 24 and coming off a strong campaign split between low and high Single-A in the Nationals’ system, were both members of a Salt River Rafters roster that made it to the AFL Championship game that fall.
After a dominant season on the mound as a 24-year-old in the low minors that season, Barrett embraced the opportunity to test himself against baseball’s top prospects, and under Williams’ guidance he put together an impressive run.
The Nationals’ 2010 ninth-round pick out of the University of Mississippi pitched well enough to earn a spot in the AFL’s Rising Stars game. He ended up posting a 3.27 ERA and a 3.11 FIP with two walks (1.64 BB/9) and 10 strikeouts (8.18 K/9) in 11 innings. Barrett’s stuff made an impression on the man who would two years later become the Nats’ fifth full-time manager.
“It was certainly at the end of the season,” Williams told reporters this spring. “(He’d) gone through a full season and that time of year, you certainly don’t feel like you feel right now. But it’s really good.”
Barrett was added to the Nationals’ 40-Man roster this past November, protecting him from selection in the Rule 5 draft after he put up a 2.15 ERA and a 1.87 FIP in 50 1/3 innings during the 2013 season, issuing 15 walks (2.68 BB/9) and collecting 69 strikeouts (12.34 K/9 while pitching as a 25-year-old at Double-A.
When he arrived for his first major league spring training, the 26-year-old reliever was well-rested and ready to compete for a spot in the Nats bullpen, though he entered camp as a long shot. The Nationals’ first-year manager was impressed from the start.
“Hard sink certainly to his arm side,” Williams said. “Good slider. It’s more of what I saw in the fall league, I think it’s a tick up though. He’s ratcheted it up from where I saw him last.”
Barrett’s fastball, in particular, seemed to have a lot more life to Williams.
“It’s got to be low-to-mid (90s),” Williams explained. “And the ball is moving. Which is good. From what I know of him, again, it’s a small sample size, six weeks (in the AFL), but from what I know of him, he wants to go to his slider, because that’s a really good pitch. We’re encouraging him to pitch more with his fastball and use his sinker effectively and he’s shown us that. He’s been good. I’ve been impressed. He’s ticked up since I saw him last.”
Baseball America listed Barrett’s slider as the best in the Nationals’ organization in back-to-back seasons from 2013-14.
As spring training went on and pitcher after pitcher was reassigned or cut, Barrett, using his impressive two-pitch arsenal, piled up scoreless outings. In late March, Williams once again singled the right-hander out for praise.
“He’s been good,” Williams said. “Every situation we’ve put him into, he’s performed and that’s all we can ask. He’s been aggressive. He’s commanded the strike zone and had quick innings, worked well. So, it’s all good.”
When spring training ended, Barrett had saved two games and put together 10 2/3 scoreless innings over which he walked none and struck out eight batters, holding opposing hitters to a .147 average. He’d also, somewhat surprisingly, earned himself a spot in the major league bullpen.
Barrett was thrown right into the fire in the majors. Williams brought the righty to New York for the opening series and sent him out to the mound to make his major league debut in the bottom of the ninth inning, a half-inning after the Nationals rallied to tie things up at 4-4 against Mets closer Bobby Parnell. Barrett threw an 11-pitch, 1-2-3 inning, striking out two of the three batters he faced while showing no signs that the pressure affected him.
“We have confidence in all of our guys,” Williams said when asked about putting Barrett out there for the first time in such a high-pressure environment. “When the situation called for it, he matched up well against the guys that were coming up we thought, and he’s ready to pitch every day, so we got him out there. He did great.”
Three scoreless appearances later, Williams once again turned to Barrett yesterday when Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton came up with two outs in the top of the eighth inning of a 2-1 game in Nationals Park.
Six pitches later, Stanton had struck out for the third time in four at-bats. Five of the six pitches Barrett threw to Stanton were sliders, including the 2-2 pitch that got a swinging strikeout.
“He was aggressive,” Williams said after the game. “Went right after him. (Stanton) is a very dangerous hitter and when the head of the bat gets on the baseball, it travels. But he threw him some good sliders and he’s got a good one and he was aggressive with it, which I like.”
“He’s a bulldog,” Barrett’s teammate Stephen Strasburg said. “He’s not scared of anybody. So I think that’s why he’s on this team and I think that’s why he’s going to be put in those positions many times this year.”
He might have been a long shot to make the bullpen at the start this spring, but through five appearances, Aaron Barrett looks like he belongs.
Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for Federal Baseball and appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. Follow him on Twitter: @federalbaseball. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.