Healthy Barnes arrives at Nats camp with goal of making club

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Matt Barnes, born and raised in New England, spent the first nine years of his big league career pitching for the Red Sox. So why not continue to make his home in Connecticut, even during the offseason?

Winters in the Northeast, of course, require some creativity for ballplayers who want to stay in shape. So it was that Barnes, still unemployed, found himself last week pitching off a synthetic mound at an indoor facility, facing the UConn Huskies baseball team in an attempt to keep his arm ready in case a major league organization finally came calling.

The Nationals did call, signing Barnes on Tuesday to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. And on Wednesday, the 33-year-old reliever reported for duty in a much warmer location, excited to start getting himself ready for the upcoming season.

Just as soon as he can practice pitching outdoors again.

“As much as I love living up north from time to time, we can’t really get on dirt mounds right now,” he said. “So I haven’t had spikes on in eight months. I would like to get some spikes on and get off of a dirt mound before I start facing some big league hitters again.”

That will come over the next week or so, after which Barnes believes he’ll be ready to pitch in a game for his new team, giving him ample time to make his case for a spot in the Opening Day bullpen.

The Nats took a flier on the 6-foot-4 right-hander, once a reliable setup man (and eventually All-Star closer) for the Red Sox who struggled the last two seasons, hoping he can recapture his old form now that he’s healthy again. Barnes had hip surgery over the winter to finally address an issue he admits plagued him for a while and probably led to his career-worst 5.48 ERA and 1.641 WHIP last season with the Marlins.

“I feel like I’ve got things to still offer this game and offer this organization and team, and that I’m back to being who I was,” he said. “The last couple of years were, I think, maybe uncharacteristic of what I was in the years prior to that, from not only the kind of competitive standpoint on the mound but also a health standpoint. I pride myself on being healthy and being a guy that can be relied upon in a bullpen.”

That’s what Barnes was from 2016-21, when made 348 appearances (ninth-most in the majors during that span), with a 3.86 ERA, 39 saves and 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings. He made at least 60 appearances during each full major league season, and the 21 games he pitched in the shortened 2020 campaign equate to 65 over a full 162-game slate.

At a position known for high year-to-year volatility, Barnes was a constant.

“I came up in an era where guys were expected to throw 70 times a year, and kind of learn how to manage that and how to go about that process,” he said. “I think as relievers, we have to be comfortable being uncomfortable and the ability to take a ball. Obviously, everybody’s going to see what you put up from a number standpoint every year, but I think one of the best things that a reliever can do is just be available as many possible days as you can.

“Listen, it doesn’t matter if you’re the best pitcher in the world or a guy making his debut this year. You’re going to have bad games. That’s just the reality of the game. It’s a very difficult, humbling game. But if you can be available every single day, or 95 percent of the days, to me that not only helps the organization, guys in the bullpen, but it just kind of says something about you.”

The Nationals aren’t counting on Barnes to do all that for them this year. They’ve already got the makings of a deep bullpen that includes late-inning stalwarts Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, Tanner Rainey and Dylan Floro. But with Mason Thompson now headed for his second career Tommy John surgery, Barnes is one of several experienced relievers who have come here on non-roster deals with a chance to make the club.

“I said it, and I’ll keep saying it: You don’t ever have enough arms,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We’ll take a good look at him, and hopefully he’s healthy and he can help us. And I know if he’s healthy, he’ll help us.” 

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