Rizzo wants to improve bullpen now, not next summer

SAN DIEGO - The Nationals won the World Series despite boasting - if that's the proper word for it - the majors' worst bullpen during the regular season. They managed to pull that remarkable feat off thanks to two key developments along the way: The acquisition of Daniel Hudson at the July 31 trade deadline, and the willingness of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin to make a combined seven relief appearances in between their respective starts during the postseason.

Somehow, it worked. The Nationals bullpen didn't give up a lead in the seventh inning or later the entire postseason. But it's not necessarily an approach the organization wants to try to duplicate in 2020.

"A very stressful way to go about my business was when you're constantly changing your bullpen on the fly," general manager Mike Rizzo told "MASN All Access" on Tuesday.

Rizzo hasn't been afraid to make major in-season bullpen changes over the years. Since 2015 alone, he has traded for Jonathan Papelbon, Mark Melancon, Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, Hunter Strickland, Roenis Elías and Hudson, all July acquisitions meant to patch significant holes in the roster.

And if it comes to that, Rizzo will do it again. But first, he intends to address the issue this winter and hopefully enter the 2020 season with a far more successful (and stable) relief corps than he had in 2019.

"I think that we're going to put a greater focus on the bullpen this offseason," he said. "We've made some acquisitions already to help bolster that bullpen, as far as depth goes. And we're going to continue to do so."

The Nationals have added one major league reliever so far this winter, though he hasn't actually made his major league debut yet. Hard-throwing right-hander Kyle Finnegan, who became a free agent after spending seven seasons in the Athletics system without getting promoted to Oakland. Finnegan received a major league deal from the Nats, who will give him a chance to make the club next spring, but at worst will know they can option him to Triple-A Fresno and call him up later on if needed.

The club also re-signed popular and versatile veteran Javy Guerra to a minor league deal, offering the right-hander $1 million plus incentives if he makes the big league club out of spring training.

Otherwise, the current bullpen includes Doolittle and a bunch of inconsistent (if sometimes promising) arms: Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, Strickland, Elías and perhaps someone from the group of Austin Voth, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde that will be competing for the No. 5 starter's job.

So there remains a need for more reliable relievers to help round out the group, especially those who could help out in the late innings.

"Obviously, we have Doolittle," manager Davey Martinez said. "I like what Rainey did towards the end of the year. He grew a lot and matured a lot. You have Suero, who I think did a great job. His ERA doesn't say that, but he pitched a lot of innings for us, pitched some big innings for us. We've got Strickland, Elías back. What I would like is: Hopefully we can find a few back end of the bullpen guys to complement Doolittle."

Hudson-Throws-Blue-NLCS-Sidebar.jpgThere is interest in bringing back Hudson, without whom the Nationals probably wouldn't have won the World Series. But the 32-year-old could parlay his recent success into a multi-year deal, and the Nats may be reluctant to make that kind of commitment to a veteran who had a spotty track record prior to 2019.

One other new consideration: Major League Baseball is expected to approve rule changes next season that will add a 26th player to the active roster but require all relievers to face a minimum of three batters (unless they complete an inning).

Rizzo said the Nationals will use that extra roster spot on a pitcher, but he said he's not too concerned with prioritizing right-handers or left-handers for any particular spot.

"We'll look for certain skill sets, maybe a little bit different than in the past," he said. "I don't see it being a drastic change, but I think it's good for the game. I think it's good for our ballclub to have an extra arm. We used a lot of eight-man bullpens last year anyway. So I think it'll be good for us."

Other news items from Day 2 of the Winter Meetings ...

* The Nationals officially announced the previously reported re-signings of infielder Howie Kendrick and catcher Yan Gomes. Kendrick will earn $4 million in 2020, with a $6.5 million mutual option or $2.25 million buyout in 2021, according to a source familiar with the terms. Gomes signed a two-year deal that pays him $4 million in 2020 and $6 million in 2021, according to a source.

"Yan did a great job of handling our pitching staff," said Rizzo, who will hope Gomes again combines with Kurt Suzuki to produce as they did this season. "I think he's a great complement with (Kurt) Suzuki. I could see that combination having a great impact on us again."

* Scherzer, Strasburg and Anthony Rendon all were named to the brand-new All-MLB First Team this afternoon. Each of the three stars was voted by fans (with some media input) as the best player in the majors at his position (Rendon as the best third baseman, Scherzer and Strasburg and two of the five best starting pitchers).

Juan Soto also was honored as a member of the All-MLB Second Team in the outfield.

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