The Nationals opened the 2023 season with one left-hander in their bullpen: Anthony Banda. Not necessarily because Banda had a strong track record or performed well in spring training. But because they felt they needed a lefty in their Opening Day bullpen.
One month later, Banda and his 6.43 ERA were designated for assignment. And the Nats spent the next seven weeks functioning with nothing but right-handed relievers.
By late June, Joe La Sorsa had been claimed off waivers from the Rays and called up to the majors, followed soon thereafter by homegrown prospect Jose A. Ferrer. And on Aug. 1, the team claimed Robert Garcia off waivers from the Marlins, giving it three lefty relievers for most of the rest of the season.
What had been a huge void in the organization now appears to be in much better shape. Garcia and Ferrer each performed well at times and will be in the mix for spots in this year’s Opening Day bullpen. La Sorsa was more erratic and was DFA’d this offseason, though he remains in the organization and will be at spring training as a non-roster invitee.
And now the Nationals are adding another potential left-handed option to their bullpen plans after signing veteran Richard Bleier to a minor-league deal Thursday evening.
Bleier’s signing, which was confirmed by a source familiar with the deal after it was first reported by The Washington Post, includes an invitation to big league camp this spring. If he makes the club, he’ll earn $900,000.
If the 36-year-old rediscovers the form he displayed through the first seven seasons of his career – he had a 3.06 ERA and 1.201 WHIP in 308 games with the Yankees, Orioles and Marlins from 2016-22 – he would be an immensely valuable asset to the Nats.
If he can’t overcome what ailed him last season – he finished with a 5.28 ERA and 1.370 WHIP in 27 games with the Red Sox, battling a shoulder injury along the way – he won’t make much difference. The Nationals don’t have to put him on the team and won’t be responsible for his salary if he doesn’t make it out of spring training.
This latest move, though, gives the Nats another viable option at a position where no such options existed a year ago.
The lefty relievers in big league camp last spring? Banda, Ferrer, Matt Cronin, Francisco Pérez, Alberto Baldonado and Evan Lee. It didn’t exactly make for a spirited competition.
The current quartet may not have a sure thing in the group, but each offers at least some intriguing possibilities. Garcia became a favorite of manager Davey Martinez late last season for his availability and calm under pressure. Ferrer may have the brightest future of the bunch and just needs to gain experience (and reduce his walks). La Sorsa gutted his way through some big outings despite less-than-elite stuff. And Bleier has a legitimate track record in the majors, the only real concern at this point is his advanced age and injury issues last season in Boston.
So when it comes time for Martinez and Mike Rizzo to finalize their Opening Day roster this spring, there’s a decent chance they’ll opt to keep multiple left-handers in their bullpen. And they’ll probably do so not because they think they have to keep someone, but because they actually have someone worth keeping this time around.