It may feel trivial to discuss baseball right now, but even as the sport sits in hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Nationals made some baseball decisions Saturday. And so it’s appropriate to discuss baseball matters.
The club cut 13 players from major league camp. Twelve of those players (inlcuding pitchers Dakota Bacus, Bryan Bonnell, Wil Crowe, Aaron Barrett, Ben Braymer, Kyle McGowin and David Hernandez) weren’t seriously expected to make the opening day roster. The other one, reliever Hunter Strickland, was supposed to make the team.
And now Strickland isn’t even a member of the organization anymore after he was given his unconditional release.
Truth be told, this move shouldn’t have surprised any astute observer. Strickland struggled after the Nationals acquired him last July 31 (5.14 ERA in 24 games). He struggled in his two postseason appearances (three homers allowed in two innings). And he continue to struggle this spring (nine runs, 12 hits allowed in 6 2/3 innings).
The 31-year-old’s biggest issue: He couldn’t keep the ball in the yard. All told, across 29 2/3 regular season, postseason and spring training innings with the Nationals, he served up 11 homers. That’s a staggering rate.
Manager Davey Martinez, typically not one to criticize his own players publicly, didn’t hold back when asked about Strickland’s longball issues last week.
“Pitchers have got to understand that just because you’re throwing 96-97 (mph), you’ve still got to locate your fastball,” Martinez said. “And that’s something he’s got to hone in on. We’ve got to get him to understand that he has to make pitches. He can’t just throw the ball 97 mph. He’s got to understand that he’s got to throw a 97 mph fastball with purpose. And he’s really trying to do that.”
Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo had talked up Strickland all winter and into the spring, insisting he was never healthy last season and thus he was a good bet to return to the form that made him a reliable late-inning reliever for the Giants from 2014-17. The Nationals re-signed him in early December for $1.6 million, but in releasing him Saturday they’re only on the hook for about one-fourth of his salary.
Here’s the kicker, though: Had they released Strickland a week ago, they only would’ve been on the hook for one-sixth of his salary. Keeping him around for one more week of spring training cost the club roughly $133,000.
Strickland’s release does open the door for someone else to make the opening day bullpen - not that we know when opening day will be at this point.
With Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, Will Harris, Wander Suero, Tanner Rainey, Roenis Elías and the loser of the battle for the No. 5 starter’s job (either Joe Ross or Austin Voth) all likely part of the big league relief corps, there’s probably one more spot available. Candidates include Kyle Finnegan, Ryne Harper, James Bourque and veteran Javy Guerra (a non-roster invitee).
Strickland’s release also clears a spot on the 40-man roster, which the Nationals could use to keep a position player who is in camp as a non-roster invitee, such as utilityman Emilio Bonifácio.