Nats bringing back Doolittle on minor league deal

The Nationals are bringing back Sean Doolittle in 2023, re-signing the popular, rehabbing reliever only hours after he officially became a free agent.

Doolittle, who appeared in only five games last season before suffering a major elbow injury, agreed to terms on a minor league contract that includes an invitation to big league camp next spring. He’ll attempt to prove he’s healthy again and make the opening day bullpen.

The 36-year-old left-hander rejoined the Nationals on a $1.5 million major league contract this spring after spending 2021 with the Reds and Mariners. He immediately looked like the best version of himself from his first stint with the organization (2017-20), tossing 5 1/3 scoreless innings during the season’s first two weeks, not even allowing a batter to reach base until his sixth appearance.

But Doolittle experienced left elbow pain after that and landed on the 10-day injured list with a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament. He was transferred to the 60-day IL a few weeks later but was hopeful he’d be able to return to pitch sometime during the season.

That didn’t happen. When the elbow pain returned as he attempted to start throwing off a mound again, Doolittle had to be shut down and make a decision. Ultimately, he opted to undergo an internal brace procedure that is less invasive than Tommy John surgery and typically allows a pitcher to return in about half the time it takes to rehab from a full ligament replacement.

Doolittle was already showing signs of progress in late September and said he expected to be fully healthy in time for spring training. Given his contract status and need to prove he could pitch again with no issues, he figured he wouldn’t get any offers until later in the offseason.

The Nationals, though, wasted no time re-signing him as soon as he and all other major leaguers on expiring contracts became free agents today.

The club has five days to decide if it wants to re-sign any of its six other free agents (Steve Cishek, Will Harris, César Hernández, Erasmo Ramirez, Joe Ross, Aníbal Sánchez) before those players are free to speak with other teams. Ramirez is probably the only one from the group who might command a major league deal, but Ross and Sánchez could return on minor league deals like Doolittle.

Nelson Cruz also became a free agent today after the Nationals declined their side of his $16 million mutual option for 2023. They instead took a $3 million buyout of the 42-year-old designated hitter, who ends up having made a total of $15 million for his one disappointing season in D.C.

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