Nats want to bridge gap between "A" and "B" bullpens

The high point of the 2023 season for the Nationals undoubtedly came in August. Specifically, a 22-game stretch from Aug. 2-26 that saw the team go 16-6 and start catching the attention of the rest of the league, which had all but ignored this organization the entire season to that point.

The remarkable thing about that stretch? The Nats didn’t dominate the opposition. The combined score of those games was 106-104. They just found a way to win the late innings, whether rallying to score the go-ahead run or preventing the other team from doing so. The result: They went 8-1 in one-run games during that period.

It requires outstanding bullpen work to do that, and the Nationals got outstanding work from four relievers in particular who were trusted by manager Davey Martinez to pitch the final innings of close games: Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, Jordan Weems and Andres Machado.

Collectively, those four guys made 43 appearances in those 22 games, totaling 40 2/3 innings. They delivered a 1.55 ERA, 1.057 WHIP and 10 saves (nine from Finnegan, one from Harvey).

The Nationals won all 13 games Finnegan pitched. They won 11-of-12 games Weems pitched and 6-of-7 games Harvey pitched after returning from the injured list mid-month.

Thus was born the team’s “A bullpen,” the top group of arms Martinez would use almost exclusively in winnable games.

But six other relievers pitched for the Nats during that same stretch. Their names: Jose A. Ferrer, Robert Garcia, Mason Thompson, Joe La Sorsa, Amos Willingham and Cory Abbott. Combine their stats and you get 32 appearances, 38 innings, a 7.82 ERA, 1.474 WHIP and zero save opportunities.

Some of these guys were used in close games, most notably the three left-handers. But for the most part, this is who Martinez put on the mound when his team was trailing, thus making it the “B bullpen.”

It’s not an uncommon arrangement. Every manager has relievers he trusts when he’s in position to win a game, and then others he uses in lower-leverage situations. But as they look for ways to improve in 2024, the Nationals are looking at the composition of their bullpen and wondering if they might be able to elevate that “B bullpen” into something a bit closer to the “A bullpen.”

Asked last week what he would look for in any potential free-agent relievers this winter, general manager Mike Rizzo underscored the need for more quality depth.

“Good, capable, major-league relievers that we could count on and not have such a split with our A group and our B group,” Rizzo said. “I think that Davey likes – well, every manager likes – multi-inning pitchers, multi-out pitchers. Guys who can go back-to-back-to-back. And that’s difficult to do with young kids, because we don’t want to push those guys three days in a row. So that’s often the conundrum that the managers face.”

Martinez tried his best to avoid pitching anybody on three consecutive days, but there were times in August when he felt like he needed to push guys like Finnegan and Harvey because the Nats had a chance to win almost every night.

And when Martinez did give somebody a well-deserved night off, he often paid the price for it.

“We wonder why – I wonder in my GM box; you guys are wondering the press box – why the heck isn’t he getting this guy ready?” Rizzo said. “And he has 10 answers for why he didn’t get him ready. And there’s a list of things that he doesn’t want to tell the media, because he doesn’t want to tell the other team. And that’s why you get some of the bullpen decisions that you get.”

The preferred solution to that dilemma? More relievers who can be trusted in high-leverage spots.

The Nationals are hoping the return of Tanner Rainey from Tommy John surgery helps provide Martinez with a third late-inning option and the ability to give Finnegan and Harvey more days off. They’re also hoping the good things they saw from Garcia and Ferrer down the stretch are a sign of better things to come, with at least one of those young lefties proving worthy of a prominent role.

But there could still be room to add someone else from the outside. The Nationals appear to have more pressing needs at the moment – first base, left field, rotation depth – but don’t dismiss the possibility of bullpen help, too, before the start of spring training.

Martinez might have tipped his hand last week when asked if he still envisions Finnegan and Harvey pitching the ninth inning next season.

“Finnegan, Harvey, maybe somebody else,” the manager said with a grin.

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