Nats hope improved depth leads to improved bullpen

As spring training fast approaches, it’s time to break down the state of the Nationals roster, position by position. The series continues today with the bullpen ...

We know the Nationals bullpen was terrible last season. That’s not news to anyone. How bad was it, though? And, more importantly, why was it so bad?

The stat most often cited throughout the ordeal that was the 2019 regular season was the Nats’ bullpen ERA: 5.66. That was worst in the majors, and worst by any major league bullpen since 2010. Thus could we conclude this was a historically bad bullpen.

Or was it? Look at the peripheral numbers. Nationals relievers had a 1.48 WHIP (better than the Tigers, Orioles and Royals). They allowed 1.55 homers per nine innings, better than five clubs. Opponents produced an .800 OPS against them, fourth-worst in the sport. Their 4.90 FIP actually ranked 24th out of 30 clubs. And their 58 percent save conversion rate, while hardly spectacular, still ranked 22nd out of 30.

Again, none of this suggest the Nats had a good bullpen, or even an average bullpen. But it wasn’t once-in-a-generation awful, either.

Why was that final ERA number so large? Let’s look at the staff’s ERA by inning, beginning with the seventh, and how that ranked among all clubs last year ...

Seventh inning: 4.67 (tied, 18th)
Eighth inning: 6.39 (29th)
Ninth inning: 5.70 (27th)
Extra innings: 7.94 (30th)

What conclusion can be drawn from those numbers? Well, to me, the biggest problem with the Nats bullpen last season was a lack of depth. A lack of multiple quality options for Davey Martinez to use on a nightly basis. The seventh-inning ERA turned out to be close to league average, in large part because Nationals starters were still pitching in the seventh many nights. The eighth inning was a disaster. The ninth inning was OK until the eighth-inning problems caused Sean Doolittle to become overworked, ineffective and then injured for a while. And if a game ever reached extra innings, Martinez really had no quality arms left at his disposal.

So how did general manager Mike Rizzo seek to fix this problem over the winter? He tried to build legitimate bullpen depth.

Doolittle returns as the primary closer, but more importantly he’ll be joined from day one by a pair of quality (they hope) setup men who can also close if needed: Daniel Hudson and Will Harris.

Those three experienced arms are expected to represent the backbone of the Nats reconstructed bullpen in 2020.

Though he went through a severe downtown in late summer, Doolittle’s struggles were viewed by club officials more as a byproduct of his excessive usage from April through July more than any concerns about his actual pitching ability. And sure enough, once he took some time off in August and early September, the lefty came back strong and looked like the best version of himself during the postseason.

The Nationals will hope Doolittle sustains that peak form throughout 2020 by turning to Hudson and Harris to help cover some of his workload.

Harris was the big offseason pickup, given a three-year, $24 million contract (only the second three-year deal Rizzo has ever given to a free agent reliever). Nats fans may best remember him as the guy who gave up Howie Kendrick’s World Series-winning homer, but Astros fans and baseball scouts know the 35-year-old as one of the sport’s most consistently effective relievers over the last five seasons.

Nationals fans know Hudson very well, having fallen in love with the veteran right-hander after he dominated August, September and then October to play a major role in the club’s first championship. But was Hudson’s 2019 (2.47 ERA, 1.137 WHIP in 69 appearances with the Blue Jays and Nats) an anomaly after a three-year stretch prior to it that included a 4.61 ERA and 1.387 WHIP in 181 appearances?

Those three veterans will draw the most attention this spring, but the Nats like the depth they’ve built behind them. It begins with Tanner Rainey, the hard-throwing righty who after a slow start last season blossomed late and became one of Martinez’s few trusted setup men during the playoffs. If Rainey can continue to harness his upper-90s fastball and throw his breaking ball for strikes enough to make hitters think about it, he has a chance to become just as important as the big three in this bullpen.

The Nationals also are banking on a return to form from Hunter Strickland, who never looked effective after his acquisition from the Mariners and was left off the National League Championship Series and World Series rosters. The company line is that Strickland never got a chance to find a groove because he was trying to play catch-up all along after missing three months with a lat strain. Healthy now, he believes he’ll be good from the get-go and pitch like the guy who had a 2.91 ERA and 1.195 WHIP for the Giants from 2015-18.

Like Strickland, Roenis Elías made a bad first impression after his July 31 acquisition. The left-hander strained his hamstring running the bases in his Nats debut, then re-injured himself later in the season after he returned. He made only four appearances, allowing six of the 13 batters he faced to reach base. There will be pressure on Elías to show a whole lot more this season, especially improved performance against left-handed batters.

Wander-Suero-Delivers-at-PHI-Gray-Sidebar.jpgWander Suero returns after an erratic rookie season that included a whopping 78 regular season appearances, 4.54 ERA and 1.262 WHIP. Those numbers were inflated by a handful of notable blowups, though. Consider this: In the 68 games when he either was credited with a win or no decision, Suero had a 2.08 ERA, 0.954 WHIP, 73 strikeouts and 15 walks. In the nine games when he was charged with a loss, he had a 35.44 ERA, 4.875 WHIP, seven strikeouts and 10 walks. The goal in 2020: Minimize the damage in the bad outings.

If those seven relievers make the club, there’s room for only one more in the opening day bullpen. And there are several candidates vying for that one spot.

The job may go to one of the losers in the battle for the No. 5 starter’s job, a sort of consolation prize for either Joe Ross, Austin Voth or Erick Fedde. Or it could go to one of two other relievers acquired on major league deals this winter: Ryne Harper, who as a 30-year-old rookie for the Twins had a 3.81 ERA and 1.178 WHIP in 61 games, or Kyle Finnegan, who had a 2.31 ERA and 1.145 WHIP in 42 games for a pair of Athletics minor league affiliates last season but wasn’t promoted to the majors.

Several veterans on minor league contracts will try to force their way into the conversation. The group includes 2019 bullpen member Javy Guerra, lefty Fernando Abad, and righties David Hernandez and Kevin Quackenbush.

Also in camp and on the 40-man roster are right-handers Aaron Barrett, Austen Williams and James Bourque.

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