Newly signed Hand comfortable with any late-inning role

Though he was the consensus best reliever available on the free agent market this winter, Brad Hand spent 2 1/2 months waiting to learn where he would pitch in 2021. Chalk it up to this most unusual offseason across baseball, and it's understandable, though no less nerve-wracking for the players involved.

Early in the process, though, Hand knew the Nationals were among the teams interested in him. And over the last couple of weeks, he said, they stepped up their efforts before finally sealing the deal with a one-year contract that guarantees him $10.5 million.

Why, in the end, were the Nats the right choice for Hand?

"Just a good group of guys, with the starting rotation they have there in Washington and the guys they've got in the bullpen," the 30-year-old left-hander said today in a Zoom session with reporters. "I thought it would be a good fit for me to join those guys down there and be able to help out in any way that I could."

The last phrase of that last sentence is key: "Help out in any way that I could." Though Hand was an all-star closer for the Padres and Indians in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and though he led the majors with 16 saves in 2020, the Nationals probably won't use him strictly in the ninth inning.

Manager Davey Martinez has shown - when he has a healthy and effective bullpen - a preference for using late-inning relievers based on matchups. And given Hand's dominant numbers against left-handed hitters, it only makes sense he'll be asked to pitch in a setup role at times if the opposing lineup dictates it.

Hand, who over the course of a 10-year career with Miami, San Diego and Cleveland has transitioned from a starter to a setup man to a closer, is ready to embrace whatever role Martinez sees fit for him in Washington.

"I'm always open to pitching whatever inning it may be," he said. "These past two years I've been closing, and I'm comfortable in that role. It's just one of those things where with this division, the NL East, there's a lot of lefties. Whatever inning I'm going to be pitching in, it doesn't necessarily matter. But I'm comfortable closing."

Nats-Park-Cherry-Blossoms-sidebar.jpgIn D.C., Hand joins a bullpen that already features two experienced late-inning arms (Daniel Hudson, Will Harris) and three up-and-coming relievers with potential (Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan, Wander Suero). He could wind up as the only lefty in the group, though, and that will make him especially valuable against such regular left-handed nemeses as Freddie Freeman and Bryce Harper.

Few relievers in the majors have been as consistently effective as Hand over a prolonged period of time. Since making the full-time conversion from the rotation to the bullpen in 2016, he owns a 2.70 ERA, 1.066 WHIP and 104 saves over 306 appearances. He's held lefties to a miniscule .150 batting average, but righties don't fare much better at .226.

Rare is the reliever who can pitch so consistently year to year. So many other quality arms fluctuate in performance from one year to the next. Hand believes he's been able to defy the odds thanks to a fastball-slider combo that works against hitters from both sides of the plate, not to mention a mindset that doesn't afford him the luxury of looking behind or ahead much.

"Once I leave the ballpark, I forget about what happened that day," he said. "You may reflect and look back on what happened. But I show up to the ballpark the next day wanting the ball, wanting to be back in that situation if I didn't succeed the day before. I think that's what it takes as a bullpen guy, to be able to brush things off like that. Obviously, we're not perfect and we're going to make mistakes. But ... we play 162 games. It's a long season. Even if you do have a bad month, over 162 you can get back to where you need to be."

Though he's new to the Nationals bullpen, Hand already feels at home with his new surroundings. He lives in West Palm Beach, Fla., during the offseason, so he regularly sees other Nats players who live in the area and/or work out at Cressey Sports Performance. He also joked today he was Max Scherzer's throwing partner last year during baseball's spring shutdown, often playing catch together "on the side of the road."

Little did Hand know at the time he's going to end up replacing Scherzer on the mound late in games at Nationals Park on a regular basis this season.

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