The signing of Trevor Williams – which became official Saturday night – wasn’t anything that was going to send shock waves through Nationals Park or the baseball world. A two-year, $13 million deal for a 30-year-old right-hander with a career 4.27 ERA is hardly the kind of move that shapes a team’s fortunes to any great extent.
What the Williams signing did do, however, was punctuate a point the Nationals seem to be making this winter: If they can’t spend big on top-tier pitchers, they’re going to make sure they get guys who can comfortably bounce back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen.
That was Williams’ role in New York this season. When the Mets were dealing with rotation injuries from April through June, he was asked to start every five days. When that rotation finally was healthy from July through September, he shifted into a long relief role.
In that respect, Williams proved to be hugely valuable to a Mets roster that was loaded with star power but needed his versatility and effective performance to navigate through a long season that ended with a berth in the National League Wild Card Series.
Williams did whatever New York needed of him. He made nine starts. He made 21 relief appearances. He finished five games. He recorded one save. He completed at least two innings in 13 of his relief outings, completing at least four innings in four of those.
Truth be told, that’s exactly what the Nationals need in their current situation.
Sure, a 175-inning, 3.50 ERA starter would’ve been great. But that was going to be out of their price range. So rather than spend $10 million on a middling-to-subpar starter like other teams have done, they gave a second guaranteed year to a swing man.
And in doing so, they added to a growing pool of pitchers who could hold the same kind of role next season.
We’ve already seen Paolo Espino bounce back and forth between the rotation and bullpen, and it’s pretty clear he’s most effective when limited to one trip through an opposing lineup. Cory Abbott seems to have a similar profile, albeit based on a much smaller sample of appearances during the season’s second half.
The Nationals used the top pick in Wednesday night’s Rule 5 draft on Thad Ward, a 26-year-old right-hander plucked out of the Red Sox system who figures to open the season as a multi-inning reliever but could develop into a starter if he pitches well enough.
You might even be able to add Mason Thompson to this list. The 24-year-old righty has only pitched as a reliever in two big league seasons, but he came up with the Padres as a starter and opened some eyes with three scoreless innings out of the bullpen in a win at St. Louis in September. Club officials are intrigued by the possibility of Thompson (who has more of a starter’s repertoire than one of a reliever) pitching multiple innings on a regular basis and might even consider giving him an opportunity to start.
Now add Williams to that list and you’ve got five right-handers who should figure into the Nationals’ plans in 2023 who could either start, relieve or hold both roles.
Maybe that’s not the kind of pitching staff you typically associate with a contender. Certainly not any contenders we’ve seen in these parts over the years.
But the Nationals simply aren’t in a position to field a traditionally deep and talented rotation right now. They can hope MacKenzie Gore, Cade Cavalli and Josiah Gray form the foundation of one for the future. But for now, the team needs to look at these matters in a different light.
Maybe an assortment of swing men who have all showed some amount of success pitching three innings at a time could be just what this team needs at this time.