Will a normal spring and more depth help Harris in 2021?

Our offseason player review series continues today with Will Harris, who had an erratic debut season with the Nationals.

PLAYER REVIEW: WILL HARRIS

Age on opening day 2021: 36

How acquired: Signed as free agent, January 2020

MLB service time: 7 years, 102 days

2020 salary: $8 million (prorated $2,962,963)

Contract status: Signed for $8 million in 2021 and 2022

2020 stats: 0-1, 3.06 ERA, 20 G, 1 SV, 17 2/3 IP, 21 H, 9 R, 6 ER, 3 HR, 9 BB, 21 SO, 0 HBP, 1.698 WHIP, 152 ERA+, 4.55 FIP, 0.1 fWAR, 0.4 bWAR

Quotable: “His last few outings, he’s been lights out. Too bad we got only a couple of weeks left. In a normal season, he’d be finding his groove now, heading into the summer of the season and off you go. But everything kind of gets magnified in a season like this, and with Will, obviously with having the late start and all that kind of stuff, he’s working his way back.” - Catcher Kurt Suzuki on Harris, Sept. 7

Harris-Throws-Gold-Sidebar.jpg2020 analysis: The Nationals knew they needed more reliable bullpen depth after cobbling the late innings together during their 2019 title run, and they decided to make Harris their key offseason acquisition in that pursuit. The veteran right-hander had put together five consecutive impressive seasons for the Astros - never mind the homers he surrendered to Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick in Games 6 and 7 of the World Series - and the hope was that he’d continue the trend with his new club.

It didn’t quite work out as planned. Harris struggled out of the gate, charged with a blown save in his season debut and scored upon in each of his first three outings. He didn’t deliver a 1-2-3 inning of relief until his eighth appearance, more than a month into the season and after he spent time on the injured list with a groin strain.

Harris’ issues were twofold. He lost some velocity on his cutter, the pitch he relies on more than any other. And his other primary pitch, a curveball, was consistently hammered. Opponents hit .412 and slugged .588 off the breaking ball, way up from their .151 and .209 marks from the previous season.

The good news: Harris did start to look better as the season progressed, and positive results came along with it. He had six straight scoreless appearances to wrap things up, during which he gave up neither an extra-base hit nor a walk. That at least allowed him to enter the winter feeling better about himself.

2021 outlook: The Nationals made a three-year commitment to Harris last winter, a gamble given his age and the volatility of relievers. Year one didn’t go so well, but those late encouraging signs perhaps suggest year two will be much better.

Harris is a guy who should benefit from a full spring training and a normal ramp up to the regular season. He’ll need to avoid the core injuries that bothered him this year, no small task for a 36-year-old, but if he can do that there’s reason to believe he can be more effective.

It should also help that Harris shouldn’t enter 2021 feeling pressure to anchor the bullpen. With Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan and hopefully a quality left-hander, manager Davey Martinez will have several options for late-inning appearances. The Nats certainly want and need Harris to be a part of the mix, but they shouldn’t need him to carry too much of the load.

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