VIERA, Fla. - ESPN’s Buster Olney and John Kruk stopped by Nationals camp on Sunday. After taking in practice and talking with many of the players, the two discussed which Nationals players were the ones to watch in a 2015 season filled with so many expectations. With a star-studded rotation dominating the headlines, along with a lineup including Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper, Olney’s response may surprise you.
“When you look at this team, it’s clear the biggest weakness on paper is their bullpen,” Olney said. “They need solutions in their bullpen. That’s why the guy to watch, for me, is the pride of Ole Miss, Aaron Barrett. He’s got one of the great wipeout sliders in all of baseball. Out of 190 pitchers last year that threw 200 or more sliders, he had the 13th-best ratio of swing and miss with his slider. He’s got to become a weapon in the seventh and eighth inning for the Nationals to complement closer Drew Storen if this team is going to go all the way.”
The 6-foot-4 Barrett was impressive at times during his rookie 2014 campaign. He posted a 3-0 record with a 2.66 ERA in 50 appearances, while being mostly used in the middle to late innings. Opponents hit just .219 against Barrett with runners in scoring position. The aforementioned slider was especially dominant against right-handed hitters, allowing only a .277 on-base percentage.
However, Barrett didn’t leave Nationals fans with the best postseason memories. His appearance in Game 4 of the National League Division Series was a nightmare. He walked the bases loaded, gave up the go-ahead run on a wild pitch and quickly exited after another wild pitch.
Manager Matt Williams also echoes Olney’s description of Barrett’s devastating slider, calling it a “wipeout” pitch. The second-year manager isn’t concerned with any mental hangover left over from last year’s playoff series with his second-year reliever.
“He’s supremely focused,” Williams said. “He understands that he’s going to be called upon in those crucial situations. Oftentimes, with a guy out there on base, in a situation late in the game where it means something, one swing of the bat can really mean something for that game. Like I said, he responded to it.
“It was a fantastic learning experience for him. The fact that he had success is a springboard. He’s ready to go. His bullpens have been great. He’s excited about the next opportunity. At the bottom of it all, he’s extremely focused at what his job is and not afraid to go out there and face those guys. He wants the ball in those situations.”
By the way, Kruk picked Ryan Zimmerman as his Nationals player to watch.
“The fact that he’s changing positions, how excited he is about this team,” Kruk said. “But he has to be a guy that hits in the middle of the lineup. They’ve lost Adam LaRoche. They need someone in the middle of that lineup they can solidify and build around with Rendon, with Jayson Werth, with Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond and guys like that are going to hit in the middle.
“If he can anchor that fourth spot in the batting lineup, it’s going to make Matt Williams’ decisions around him a lot easier.”