Nats still hoping quality lefty emerges for bullpen

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – In his perfect world, Davey Martinez would have a left-hander in his Opening Day bullpen. Two of them, actually.

By now, though, the Nationals manager probably realizes there’s no such thing as a perfect world. Certainly not when it comes to this specific area.

It’s been a near-annual struggle since Martinez joined the organization to find consistently effective left-handed relievers. He’s had 10 lefties make at least 10 appearances since 2018. Only two have produced an ERA under 4.00: Sean Doolittle and Brad Hand.

Hand, of course, was only here for four months during the 2021 season before he was traded to the Blue Jays. And Doolittle, while dominant at times, has dealt with multiple injuries and is currently attempting to return from elbow surgery that limited him to five games last season.

The Nats, ideally, would love to develop guys from within their own farm system. And they believe they have two such candidates in big league camp this spring in Jose Ferrer and Matt Cronin. Each has shown promise through the first two weeks of exhibition play. Then each struggled mightily Thursday night during a 9-0 loss to Team Israel.

Ferrer was supposed to pitch the top of the fifth, but Martinez had to emerge from the dugout and pull him after he allowed four runs on four hits, two walks and a wild pitch while recording only one out.

The 23-year-old admittedly is a raw talent, having opened the 2022 season at low Single-A Fredericksburg. He skyrocketed up the ladder, though, getting promoted to High-A Wilmington after posting a 1.42 ERA and 0.684 WHIP in 13 appearances, then getting promoted again to Double-A Harrisburg after posting a 2.56 ERA and 1.060 WHIP in 28 games.

Ferrer figures to open this year back in Double-A, with the hope he could continue to climb and perhaps debut by season’s end.

“I really love Ferrer,” Martinez said following Thursday night’s game. “I think he’s going to be really, really good, and he’s going to help us. He’s just got to go out there and pitch. The biggest thing with him – and we talked to him about it – is he’s just got to go out there and attack and throw strike one, strike one, strike one. Not be afraid. Today, he fell behind a few times. And they know after that he’s going to throw his fastball.”

Cronin is a little further up the organizational ladder than Ferrer. The 25-year-old, a fourth-round pick in the 2019 draft, didn’t allow an earned run in 14 appearances at Harrisburg last season, earning a promotion to Triple-A Rochester, where he had a 3.53 ERA and 1.262 WHIP.

Summoned for the top of the ninth Thursday night, Cronin proceeded to surrender four runs on four hits, a walk and a wild pitch, serving up three extra-base hits, including a homer to former big league catcher Ryan Lavarnway.

“He gets to two strikes, and he didn’t finish,” Martinez said. “Hung a curveball. Threw a couple balls down in the zone, when he usually elevates his fastball.”

Because stats from the Israel exhibition don’t count, Ferrer and Cronin technically still sport 0.00 ERAs this spring. They remain in major league camp and should get more opportunities to state their cases.

But the odds of either making the Opening Day roster probably aren’t great. Not that any of Martinez’s other left-handed options have looked all that great, either.

Francisco Pérez, Alberto Baldonado and Evan Lee, lefties who all have pitched for the Nationals in the majors at various points the last two seasons, were among the first group of players reassigned to minor league camp this week.

Anthony Banda, a 29-year-old with a 5.64 ERA and 1.612 WHIP across 80 major league appearances with the Diamondbacks, Rays, Mets, Pirates, Blue Jays and Yankees, remains in big league camp. He, naturally, also gave up four runs in a recent relief appearance, leaving him with a 13.50 spring ERA.

With Doolittle unlikely to be ready by Opening Day, the Nationals face the prospect of entering the season with zero left-handers in an eight-man bullpen. They can only hope it doesn’t remain that way the entire year, hoping not only for Doolittle’s return from surgery but the emergence of a quality young arm or two from their system, say Ferrer and Cronin.

“These guys, at some point they’re going to help us this year,” Martinez said. “We’ve got to continue to work with them and build them up and see what happens by the end of spring.”

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