If you wanted to try to distill the story of the Nationals bullpen over the last several seasons into one simplified narrative, it would be this: Davey Martinez didn’t trust enough guys to pitch in high-leverage situations, forcing the manager to overuse his one or two best relievers, which sometimes led to ineffectiveness or injury.
It’s a pattern that has often repeated itself around here, and it’s one Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo appear determined to avoid in 2021.
And how exactly do they intend to avoid it? By assembling perhaps the deepest bullpen of experienced late-inning arms this franchise has had in a long time, if ever.
There are returning veterans Daniel Hudson and Will Harris. There is returning up-and-comer Tanner Rainey. There is the big prize of the offseason: lefty Brad Hand. And now there’s another addition to the mix: veteran righty Jeremy Jeffress, who agreed to a minor league deal Monday and appears likely to make the opening day roster barring any setbacks between now and then.
That’s five proven relievers with late-inning experience, a luxury few clubs can claim to possess.
“You can’t ever have enough, because you don’t know what the future’s going to bring,” Martinez said Monday from West Palm Beach, Fla., during a Zoom session with reporters. “It’s nice to have, especially some of these veteran guys, to have that kind of depth.”
And it was all done by design. Though the Nationals have entered each of Martinez’s three previous seasons as manager with bullpens they liked at the time, they always knew one bad development had the potential to throw the whole unit into chaos.
In 2018, it happened when veteran setup men Ryan Madson and Shawn Kelley struggled early and closer Sean Doolittle suffered an injury in midsummer. In 2019, Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough were abject disasters, leaving Doolittle on fumes by July and requiring the deadline deal for Hudson to save the season. And last year, Doolittle remained out of whack while Harris suffered an early groin injury and Hudson was hit hard by opponents.
The moves Rizzo made this winter appear designed to help prevent those kind of situations from developing in the first place. Or, even if they do, preventing the entire house of cards from collapsing.
If one or two of the aforementioned five late-inning options struggle or get hurt, there are ample alternatives in place to pick up the slack. And that’s to say nothing of intriguing, but less-experienced, relievers like Wander Suero and Kyle Finnegan, who have the potential to be major contributors, but still need to prove they can consistently be effective.
If nothing else, Martinez shouldn’t ever find himself in the familiar-but-unwanted position of asking a reliever to pitch three days in a row, or even three times in four days.
“We talked a lot this offseason, right away I talked to Riz and did our homework,” Martinez said. “It’s nice to not have to use these guys three out of four days. A lot of these guys, they’ll pitch back-to-back days. But that third day is kind of ...
“The big thing is limiting their innings and keeping them strong for August and September.”
Indeed, the goal in April and May will be to ensure no one gets worn down and thus becomes unavailable or ineffective for the stretch run.
It also helps that all of the participating parties are willing and eager to share the load and aren’t concerned with sticking to preordained roles. Hand and Hudson probably will get the bulk of the closing opportunities, based on which part of an opposing lineup is due to bat in the ninth inning. But Rainey, Harris and Jeffress all could be used in save situations if necessary.
“I mean, the more options the better, and I think that’s just the way the modern bullpen is moving,” Hudson said. “Roles kind of ... they still do exist, but at the same time we’re all just relievers now. There’s not really a closer or eighth-inning or seventh-inning guy. It’s just: ‘Let’s go get outs whenever we’re asked. Who cares about what inning it’s in?’ “
It sounds like such a simple concept, but it hasn’t always been this way. Only in recent years have relievers bought into the idea of sharing roles and not rigidly insisting on having the same job every night.
“I think the guys’ attitudes have definitely changed,” Hudson said. “The egos have kind of gone by the wayside, and I haven’t played with anybody recently who says: ‘Man, I’m only pitching this inning.’ Guys are ready for whatever and whatever Davey is asking.”
And Martinez, as he scans the deepest bullpen he’s had in four seasons at the helm in D.C., is ready to ask all of them to do their part to make this new plan work.