A Nationals bullpen that already looked deep on paper could be getting a boost from another experienced arm: right-hander Jeremy Jeffress, who has agreed to a minor league deal with an invitation to big league camp, manager Davey Martinez confirmed this afternoon.
“He’s got to come in, take his intake test, take a physical and then we’ll know more after that,” Martinez said from West Palm Beach, Fla., during his daily Zoom session with reporters. “But if everything goes well, I’m excited that we’ll have him.”
Once he’s officially in camp, Jeffress will need to earn a spot on the opening day roster. But the 33-year-old’s track record suggests he’s likely to make it barring injury or poor performance this spring.
Owner of a 3.08 ERA and 52 saves over an 11-year career with five clubs (most notably the Brewers), Jeffress is coming off a strong 2020 season with the Cubs in which he posted a 1.54 ERA, a 0.943 WHIP and eight saves in 22 appearances.
Jeffress has found success recently despite an approach not particularly common among today’s relievers: He doesn’t strike many batters out. He recorded only 17 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings last season and career strikeout rate of 8.2 per nine innings is low for a reliever.
Jeffress, though, makes up for it by inducing a lot of ground balls. His two most-thrown pitches (sinker and split-finger fastball) keep the ball down in the zone and prevent hitters from generating much launch. He allowed only one homer last season and sports a miniscule career home run rate of 0.7 per nine innings.
“The key with him is obviously strike one, and keeping the ball down,” Martinez said. “When he’s down, he’s really good.”
If he makes the opening day roster, Jeffress will earn $1.25 million and the opportunity to earn an additional $1.25 million in incentives, according to MLB.com, which first reported the signing.
The Nationals have one opening on their 40-man roster at the moment, so there is a spot for one non-roster invitee to make the club. More spots could open if any players begin the season on the 60-day injured list or are designated for assignment.
Four relievers are locks to make the bullpen: left-hander Brad Hand and right-handers Daniel Hudson, Will Harris and Tanner Rainey. Wander Suero and Kyle Finnegan are likely to make the team, though both righties still have options and could be sent to Triple-A without needing to be placed on waivers.
The Nationals also figure to carry one long reliever, most likely Austin Voth or Erick Fedde (if Joe Ross is named the No. 5 starter). That would leave only one more available spot in an eight-man bullpen, with Jeffress jumping to the top of the list of candidates that also includes Kyle McGowin, Ryne Harper, Sam Clay, Javy Guerra, Luis Avilán, Dakota Bacus and T.J. McFarland.
“The thing that I like is we have options,” Martinez said. “That’s nice. In spring training, we’ve got a lot of guys out there, and we’ve got options to do a lot of different things. (Jeffress) is coming to our club. I liked him. I’ve always liked him. And it’s nice to have him.”