With four late-inning arms, Nats have plenty of relief options

A few national baseball writers referred to Brad Hand as the Nationals' "new closer" upon reporting his contract agreement Sunday night. Don't be so sure about that.

Though Hand certainly is going to end up closing some games for the Nats this season, that's not technically the role the club has in mind for him. It's safe to say Davey Martinez will use Hand whenever the matchup is in his favor, whether that comes in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning.

Some managers and some teams think it's important to have a designated closer and firmly established roles for others in the bullpen. Martinez and the Nationals have proven they don't view it that way.

When they were at their best late in the 2019 season, the Nats used both Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle to finish games. If the opponents' best left-handed hitters were due up in the seventh or eighth, Doolittle would pitch those innings and Hudson would close. If the earlier matchups favored Hudson, he'd be the setup man while Doolittle closed.

It all worked out splendidly, and it was supposed to work the same way in 2020. Until Doolittle lost the life on his fastball and had to be moved into a lower-leverage role, then eventually to the injured list.

Thumbnail image for Hudson-Pitching-Blue-sidebar.jpgHudson also endured through some struggles last summer, blowing five of his 15 save opportunities, a few of them in spectacular fashion.

So there's some question how this will all play out in 2021. Here's what we do know: Martinez now has four legitimate late-inning options, and he could choose to use them in any particular order on any particular night.

It's not just Hand and Hudson. It's Will Harris, the 36-year-old who was consistently excellent for the Astros for five seasons but was erratic in his first season in D.C. And it's Tanner Rainey, who might just have the highest upside of anyone in the group.

Martinez has been criticized for overworking some of his top relievers since arriving in town. It's not an unwarranted criticism, but it's usually been the result of injuries or ineffectiveness of others. Doolittle was the only reliable reliever he had for most of 2019, and so it's not surprising the lefty wore down. Hudson was in a somewhat similar position last year while Doolittle struggled and Harris dealt with a groin injury.

Now, if everyone's healthy and effective, Martinez should be able to better manage everybody's workload. On any given night, he should be able to guarantee one of his top four guys is off, maybe two of them. And he can put the relievers who are available into situations that maximize their chances for success.

Say the Nationals are playing the Braves. You better believe Hand is going to face Freddie Freeman late in the game, no matter which inning. (Because you're wondering: Freeman is 3-for-17 with zero extra-base hits in his career against Hand.) Same when the Nats face the Phillies and Bryce Harper (4-for-19, one homer), or the Mets and Michael Conforto (1-for-6).

The good news is, everybody in the group appears to be on board with the plan to share the load. Hudson is about the smallest-ego closer you'll ever meet, so much so that he at times has openly said he prefers not to close. Hand pitched in every possible role in Cleveland and embraced it. Likewise for Harris from his time in Houston. And Rainey, as the least-experienced of the bunch, remains happy to do whatever is asked of him.

Who ends up with the most saves on the team? Who knows? Maybe Hudson and Hand split it up evenly. Maybe one of them ends up taking on the bulk of the opportunities. Maybe Harris or Rainey forces his way into the ninth inning based on dominant performance.

Whatever the case, the Nationals now have themselves a quartet of late-inning relievers with tons of potential. And Martinez has no shortage of different ways he can use them.

Will any new Hall of Famers be elected tonight?
Nationals bolster bullpen with top available lefty...

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to https://www.masnsports.com/