One year after hitting the jackpot with the signing of a reliever with extensive minor league experience to a major league contract, the Nationals are hoping they found another diamond in the rough with today’s signing of left-hander Sam Clay.
Clay, who spent the last seven seasons in the Twins system but never reached the majors, was given a big league deal by the Nats, just as right-hander Kyle Finnegan was last winter.
Finnegan enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2020 and looks like a long-term piece of the Nationals bullpen. Time will tell whether Clay duplicates that feat, but the organization has reason to believe the 27-year-old, who was overjoyed by the news he was geting an MLB contract, could do it.
“Honestly, it was not something I expected,” he said during a Zoom call with reporters. “My agent had hinted at it and suggested that maybe it could happen, but I was shellshocked. I didn’t know what to say. I was speechless, honestly. It was just an incredible feeling.”
A fourth-round pick out of Georgia Tech in 2014, Clay began his professional career as a starter but switched full-time to the bullpen in 2017. In three seasons of competition since - there was no minor league season in 2020 - he posted a 3.48 ERA with 20 saves and 200 strikeouts in 188 2/3 innings pitched.
Clay has put a sizeable number of runners on base - his WHIP since 2017 is 1.468 - but his success has come from his ability to keep the ball on the ground and in the park.
In 2019, Clay led all minor league pitchers with a 71.3 percent groundball rate and did not surrender a home run. Over the course of 405 1/3 career minor league innings, he has given up only six homers, taking full advantage of his sinker-slider-changeup repertoire.
Clay’s pitching profile doesn’t bear much resemblance to Finnegan, a hard-throwing righty, but his path to Washington could be quite similar. Last winter, the Nationals took a chance on Finnegan (who had spent seven seasons in the Athletics system without reaching the majors) and gave him a big league contract. Finnegan proceeded to post a 2.95 ERA in 25 appearances for the Nats, striking out 27 batters in 24 2/3 innings.
The Nationals are desperate for left-handed relievers after Sean Doolittle became a free agent, veteran Sam Freeman tore his elbow ligament and prospect Seth Romero broke his hand shortly after making his major league debut this summer. Their 40-man roster, which now stands at 31 with the Clay signing, previously included only three lefties: Romero, Patrick Corbin and Ben Braymer.