With strong finish, Rainey put himself back in mix for closer job

PLAYER REVIEW: TANNER RAINEY

Age on opening day 2022: 29

How acquired: Traded from Reds for Tanner Roark, December 2018

MLB service time: 2 years, 126 days

2021 salary: $589,000

Contract status: Likely arbitration-eligible in 2022, free agent in 2026

2021 stats: 1-3, 7.39 ERA, 38 G, 3 SV, 31 2/3 IP, 29 H, 27 R, 26 ER, 6 HR, 25 BB, 42 SO, 3 HBP, 1.705 WHIP, 55 ERA+, 5.64 FIP, minus-0.3 fWAR, minus-1.1 bWAR

Quotable: “You know what I like a lot from Rainey right now? He looks way more under control than he has in the past. His mechanics are spot-on right now. His arm’s coming through very nice. And he’s attacking the strike zone. He’s throwing strike after strike. If he can do that and sustain that, like I’ve said before ... I want you to pitch the eighth and ninth inning. You have the stuff for it.” - manager Davey Martinez on Sept. 22

Thumbnail image for Rainey-Delivers-Gray-Sidebar.jpg2021 analysis: Tanner Rainey entered the season as the youngest of four Nationals relievers (along with Brad Hand, Daniel Hudson and Will Harris) expected to pitch the late innings and lock down games. All along, conventional wisdom suggested the right-hander might wind up closing at some point if he proved to be the best of the bunch.

Rainey did end up closing by season’s end, not because he earned it over the other three guys, but because he was the only one left on the roster. And he wasn’t even on the roster himself for much of the second half. His first half included a 6.93 ERA, 7.3 walks per nine innings, diminished fastball velocity and a trip to the injured list with a stress reaction in his lower right leg.

Rainey returned from that injury to make only one appearance (blowing a save) and get optioned to Triple-A, returned again to make only one appearance (giving up two runs) and get optioned to Rochester again. But finally by mid-September, he was both healthy and effective again.

Over the course of three consecutive minor league outings, Rainey struck out all nine batters he faced. That earned him a promotion back to D.C., and he responded by striking out the first six batters he faced there. He wound up with two late-season saves, a fastball that had velocity and life for the first time all year, and renewed optimism for next year.

2022 outlook: It remains to be seen what the Nationals do bullpen-wise this winter. General manager Mike Rizzo might well decide his team needs an experienced closer, perhaps a veteran setup man as well to take some pressure off the younger guys already on the roster. But if there’s one member of the current group most likely to figure into the late-inning mix, it’s Rainey.

Due for a slight raise through arbitration (assuming he qualifies as a Super Two player), Rainey will enter spring training as one of the most intriguing pitchers on the staff. The Nats will want to see him healthy. They’ll want to see his fastball continue to register in the upper 90s. And they’ll want to see his slider break with consistency.

If they do acquire someone else to pitch the ninth, they’ll still have Rainey pitching in a setup role. If they don’t, they might well designate him the closer prior to opening day and hope he’s ready to take a big step forward in a career that has included more than a few eye-opening moments but plenty of close-your-eyes meltdowns as well.

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