Through ups and downs, Nats have stuck with Finnegan


Age on Opening Day 2024: 32

How acquired: Signed as free agent, December 2019

MLB service time: 4 years

2023 salary: $2.325 million

Contract status: Arbitration-eligible, free agent in 2026

2023 stats: 7-5, 3.76 ERA, 67 G, 28 SV, 69 1/3 IP, 66 H, 33 R, 29 ER, 11 HR, 24 BB, 63 SO, 1 HBP, 1.298 WHIP, 115 ERA+, 4.58 FIP, 1.0 bWAR, 0.3 fWAR

Quotable: “He was a guy who was struggling when we got him, and our pitching people have developed him into a guy that’s qualified to pitch in the back end of major league games. That’s how far he’s come.” – Mike Rizzo

2023 analysis: After ascending to the closer’s role in 2022, Finnegan entered this season with the job already his. That status probably helped him overcome an incredibly shaky first week, in which he gave up seven runs and three homers in 2 1/3 innings, blowing one of two save opportunities. A week like that in the past might’ve bumped him out of the ninth inning, but not in this case.

Finnegan immediately locked in. And he stayed locked in for more than four months. Over his next 48 games, he produced a 1.42 ERA and 0.987 WHIP with 18 saves and only three homers surrendered across 50 2/3 innings. He was as automatic a late-inning reliever as the Nationals had on their roster in some time.

The right-hander’s success made him an attractive trade target among contenders. But Rizzo opted not to deal him at the end of July, believing his value to the organization remained high, and believing he could still be part of an elite bullpen when this team is ready to contend itself again in the coming years.

Finnegan’s finish, though, didn’t resemble that previous sustained stretch of dominance. Over his final 16 appearances, his ERA ballooned to 7.71, his WHIP to 1.898. Though he blew only one of 10 save opportunities, he frequently got hit, and got hit hard, surrendering five homers over 16 1/3 innings from Aug. 18 through season’s end. All of that left his final numbers looking far less dominant than they could’ve been.

2024 outlook: The Nationals made it clear they’re committed to Finnegan, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll head into next season as the established closer once again. As with nearly every late-inning reliever, though, the potential for regression always looms.

How can Finnegan sustain his success? By limiting walks and homers, his two biggest problem areas when things go wrong. Nearly every one of his shaky outings included at least one walk (often two), and many of them also included home runs (which are always untimely in the ninth inning).

At his best this summer, Finnegan showed off a dominant 1-2 punch. He blew away hitters up in the zone with his upper-90s fastball, then fooled them with a 90-mph splitter that darted down below the knees and was nearly unhittable (.167 batting average, .283 slugging percentage). But by season’s end, it did feel like he had become a bit predictable in his usage of those two pitches, which may have contributed to some of his struggles.

When he first joined the Nats in 2020, Finnegan threw his slider 21 percent of the time. That rate has steadily dropped each year, down to a meager 5 percent this season. To be sure, opponents hit that pitch hard (5-for-12, two doubles, one homer), but if he can use it just enough to remind hitters he has it, he could benefit in the long run.

Will Finnegan still be a big part of the Nationals bullpen when they’re ready to contend again? It’s a great question. Club officials want to believe that will be the case. They’re also realistic enough to know how volatile reliever performance can be. If the team is out of the race again this summer and Finnegan is pitching well, Rizzo will certainly get trade offers again. He’ll have to decide at that point whether to stick with his guy and count on him closing games for a contender in 2025 or finally make the tough choice to move him for younger players who could help farther down the road.

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