After surprising season, will Albers fit into Nats’ 2018 plans?

As we transition into offseason mode here, we’re reviewing each significant player on the Nationals roster. We continue today with Matt Albers, perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise of the season.

PLAYER REVIEW: MATT ALBERS

Age on opening day 2018: 35

How acquired: Signed as minor league free agent, January 2017

MLB service time: 10 years, 141 days

2017 salary: $1.15 million

Contract status: Free agent in 2018

2017 stats: 7-2, 1.62 ERA, 63 G, 2 SV, 61 IP, 35 H, 12 R, 11 ER, 6 HR, 17 BB, 63 SO, 4 HBP, 0.852 WHIP, 0.8 WAR

Quotable: “When I signed here, I was really excited to come to a really good, winning team. I’ve been on some not-so-winning teams. It’s not a lot of fun. It’s tough, makes it a long season. I’m just kind of enjoying the ride.” - Albers

2017 analysis: Sometimes the transactions that seem the least significant at the time turn out to be some of the most important ones a team makes. When the Nationals signed both Albers and fellow veteran reliever Joe Nathan to minor league contracts two weeks before the start of spring training, the reaction ranged from indifference to sarcasm. By season’s end, nobody was mocking the Albers signing.

matt-albers-white-celebrate.jpgEven though he posted a 0.00 ERA in spring training, Albers was among the final roster cuts. He wound up re-signing and reporting to Triple-A Syracuse; within a week, he joined the big league bullpen and never left it.

At a time when the Nationals bullpen was admittedly a train wreck, Albers ascended to become one of Dusty Baker’s only trusted arms. His role continued to grow to the point where he regularly pitched the eighth and even the ninth innings. On May 6, he closed out a 4-2 victory over the Phillies, in the process earning the first save of a career that to that point included 461 appearances, 437 relief appearances and 103 games finished.

As the Nationals fortified their bullpen with three key midseason acquisitions, Albers returned to a role pitching earlier in games. But he remained one of Baker’s most-trusted weapons and by season’s end proved to be among the most effective relievers in baseball.

2018 outlook: Albers is now a free agent, and after the success he just enjoyed he may well find multiple suitors out there willing to offer him a multi-year contract. Whether the Nationals are willing to take that gamble in an effort to maintain some continuity in their bullpen remains to be seen.

Relievers are by nature an erratic bunch, and success one year often doesn’t translate at all into the next year. It’s easy to look at Albers’ 2017 performance as an extreme outlier and conclude it’s highly unlikely to happen again.

That said, Albers’ season didn’t come entirely out of nowhere. He actually owns a 2.89 ERA and 1.198 WHIP over the last six seasons. He has refined his pitching approach, turning more to his slider this year to help put away hitters. And he has devoted more effort to conditioning to keep himself strong through the rigors of an entire season.

The Nationals may feel they can fill this role with either a cheaper or a more consistently proven alternative, but they should strongly consider bringing Albers back if the price is right.

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