Bullpen has high upside at low cost

For the first time in a long time, the bullpen was the Nationals’ biggest strength this season.

After so many years (in which they did win, I might add) of trusting unproven closers and acquiring top relief pitchers through trade deadline deals, general manager Mike Rizzo constructed a bullpen mostly through waiver claims and minor league deals that proved to be more than adequate for manager Davey Martinez.

Nine of the 11 relievers with at least 23 appearances out of the ‘pen produced a FanGraphs WAR of 0.1 or better. Only Andres Machado (51 appearances, -0.1 fWAR) and Steve Cishek (69 appearances, -0.3 fWAR) were left out of the bullpen’s top 10 in fWAR, which includes Sean Doolittle’s 0.3 in just six appearances.

Looking even further, they produced some impressive numbers.

Kyle Finnegan posted a 3.51 ERA and 1.140 WHIP with 11 saves in 66 ⅔ innings over 66 games. Carl Edwards Jr. had a 2.76 ERA and 1.226 WHIP in 62 innings over 57 games. Erasmo Ramirez recorded a 2.92 ERA and 1.077 WHIP in 80 ⅓ innings over 58 relief appearances en route to being named Nationals Pitcher of the Year. And Tanner Rainey had a 3.30 ERA, 1.300 WHIP and 12 saves before his season was cut short due to injury.

Even Hunter Harvey, Jordan Weems and Mason Thompson turned in impressive outings throughout the season.

With the exception of Cishek, all of these relievers are either locked in or expected to be re-signed by the Nats for next year. And the best part is they will all come at a low cost.

Five of them are arbitration-eligible and were tendered contracts last week, and per MLB Trade Rumors, none of them are projected to earn more than $2 million next year: Finnegan ($2 million), Edwards ($1.6 million), Harvey ($1 million), Rainey ($1.5 million) and Victor Arano ($1 million).

That’s just $7.1 million projected to be committed to five of the Nats’ top eight relievers in fWAR from 2021.

Doolittle is returning on a minor league deal that will pay a base salary of $1.5 million if he makes the team out of spring training, plus a lot of incentives throughout the year. If the veteran southpaw does make the team, that’s still only $8.6 million projected to be committed to six of the top bullpen arms.

That leaves the other relievers who are pre-arbitration-eligible (i.e. have less than three years of service time) and will make at or near the 2023 league minimum salary of $720,000. Those players include Paolo Espino, Weems, Thompson and Machado. That makes an approximate total of $11.48 million projected payroll to the bullpen.

The one wild card remaining in the equation is Ramirez, who is a free agent and can sign with any club. The Nationals will probably want to bring back their 2022 Pitcher of the Year, and as he's 32 years old, it shouldn’t cost them too much.

With the sale of the team and Rizzo’s actual marching orders on how to spend money this offseason uncertain, it’s hard to see the Nats dishing out big contracts heading in to 2023.

There are definite areas on the roster the Nationals need to address, primarily starting pitching, corner outfield and designated hitter. Of course, they could still, and probably will, add to the bullpen this offseason. But that will likely come in the form of minor league deals like those struck with Doolittle, Edwards and Ramirez.

And that’s a good thing. The Nats can take solace in the fact that they are returning the majority of their biggest strength at a significantly low cost.

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