State of the Nats roster: Bullpen

We continue today a periodic look at the state of the Nationals roster at the point spring training was suspended and project how things may look whenever baseball is played again. Up next is the bullpen...

Team officials are always going to speak optimistically about their roster during spring training. If you can't be positive in February and March, what hope do you have?

But the optimism the Nationals displayed in West Palm Beach over their bolstered bullpen was genuine. They legitimately felt like this group was going to be significantly improved in 2020. Not that it would take much to look better than the 2019 relief corps that ranked last in the majors in ERA during the regular season.

Common sense says the Nats bullpen has to be better this year. Not necessarily good, but better. Whether it can elevate itself to above-average status depends on the health and effectiveness of the three veterans at the back end of the group and the continued emergence of less-experienced arms that will be sorely needed to give manager Davey Martinez the quality depth needed over a season.

Spring training stats should always be taken with a grain of salt, and that's even more true when it comes to relievers who make only a few appearances and often are working on specific pitches and not at all interested in results.

Having said that, the numbers the Nationals' top relievers put up in Florida this spring were not pretty. Sean Doolittle allowed six runs and eight hits in 3 1/3 innings. Daniel Hudson was right there alongside his lefty counterpart with six runs and seven hits allowed in 3 1/3 innings.

Will Harris, meanwhile, dealt with an abdominal strain and hadn't been able to pitch in a game before camp was shut down. The 35-year-old righty, who gave up Howie Kendrick's Game 7 homer in the World Series and then signed a three-year, $24 million deal with the Nats, insisted he was close to returning during the final days of camp. Certainly, he's had more than enough time now to recover and should be 100 percent ready for the resumption of camp.

Doolittle and Hudson were lights-out during the postseason, neither late-inning reliever giving up a lead at any point during October. They proved to be a nicely balanced tandem, neither possessing the kind of ego that would take it personally when the other got a save opportunity. Healthy and rested at this point, both should be in a good shape for whatever workload is asked of them in 2020, but Hudson's lack of year-to-year consistency during his career remains a concern.

If the Nationals bullpen is going to be a strength and not a weakness this season, it's going to need multiple arms from the rest of the group to step up and become mainstays for Martinez.

Rainey-Pitch-Blue-sidebar.jpgAtop the list of candidates to do that is Tanner Rainey, who had earned enough of Martinez's trust to be put on the mound in several key spots during the postseason. The hard-throwing righty mostly handled those situations well, but he has to show he can consistently throw strikes if he's going to take the next critical step in his development.

Wander Suero was pushed to the background in October, but nobody made more appearances during the regular season. When he was good, he was really good (2.08 ERA, 0.954 WHIP in 68 games when he earned the win or received no decision). When he was bad, he was really bad (35.44 ERA, 4.875 WHIP in his nine losses). For what it's worth, Suero tossed six scoreless innings and allowed only one hit during the first round of spring training.

The Nationals reported to West Palm Beach believing Hunter Strickland would also play an important role in the bullpen's resurgence. But after a dreadful stretch during which the right-hander simply couldn't keep the ball in the ballpark, he was released, a rare admission of defeat by general manager Mike Rizzo.

So the spotlight will fall on others when camp resumes. Lefty Roenis Elías, who like Strickland was acquired from the Mariners last July but was hurt and had little impact in 2019, appeared to make some strides versus opposing lefties during the spring. Newcomers Kyle Finnegan and Ryne Harper turned some heads in camp. Rookie James Bourque had an 11-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Veterans Javy Guerra, Kevin Quackenbush, Fernando Abad and Sam Freeman all pitched well and were starting to make cases to make the club as non-roster invitees.

The Nationals also planned to go into the season with one long reliever who had been competing for the open No. 5 starter's job. As of mid-March, Austin Voth appeared to have the inside track for that job, with Joe Ross likely to make the rotation and Erick Fedde headed to the minors. That arrangement could still happen, though it's also possible the Nats will need to have a regular sixth starter if the condensed season includes few off-days and scheduled doubleheaders.

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