Bullpen improvement must come both from within and from outside

Stability has never been a hallmark of the Nationals bullpen. Truth be told, it’s rarely a hallmark of any club’s bullpen, given the inherent instability of the position. But the Nats took this longstanding theme to new (and often painful) levels in 2021.

For only the third time in team history, Nationals relievers finished a season with a collective ERA north of 5.00, joining the 103-loss 2009 group and the tightrope-walking 2019 unit that managed to get it together just in time to win in October.

Perhaps more concerning, the 2021 Nats used 26 different pitchers in relief, more than twice as many as the 2014 squad that set the club record with only 12 relievers.

And things only got worse as the season progressed. Once Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson were dealt at the trade deadline, the Nationals were left with an ever-changing hodgepodge of relievers short on experience and rarely able to close out games.

The cringe-worthy stats: From July 31 through season’s end, Nats relievers had the fewest wins (five), the most losses (22), the third-worst ERA (5.71), the worst WHIP (1.61), the worst walk rate (5.08 per nine innings), the second-worst home run rate (1.64 per nine innings) and the most blown saves (18) in the majors.

Rizzo-On-Field-With-Reporters-Sidebar.jpg“The best-laid plans sometimes have to be made adjustments to,” general manager Mike Rizzo said on the season’s final day. “(Will) Harris went down, (Tanner) Rainey went down for most of the year and we traded our two back-end-of-the-bullpen guys. It’s always part of the puzzle that you have to put together, and oftentimes, it’s the most difficult.”

Rizzo’s challenge this winter (beyond the constraints of the league-wide lockout) is among his most difficult to date. Though he already employs a handful of promising relievers with some track record of success, there isn’t anything close to a sure thing in the bunch. Additions are needed. And those who are returning are going to need to take some significant steps forward.

Of the entire group, Rainey would seem to have the best chance of making it as a late-inning stalwart. The 29-year-old grew into a semi-reliable setup man for manager Davey Martinez late in 2019, then proved to be the team’s best reliever during the abbreviated 2020 season. But his 2021 was an abject disaster, from the strained muscle near his collarbone in spring training to his 10.00 ERA through his first 10 appearances to his placement on the COVID-19 injured list to the stress reaction in his lower right leg that landed him on the 10-day IL to a pair of late-summer demotions to Triple-A.

Ah, but there was a glimmer of hope by the end. After striking out the side in three consecutive outings at Rochester, Rainey was called back up to D.C. in mid-September and proceeded to continue the dominant streak. All told, he retired 17 batters in a row between the two levels, the first 15 of them via strikeout.

The Nationals can only hope Rainey picks up this spring where he left off last fall and reasserts himself as a top late-inning arm. They can also only hope Kyle Finnegan rediscovers the form that made him a reliable reliever for a good chunk of 2021.

Over a stretch of 43 games from May 17-Sept. 12, the right-hander owned a 1.69 ERA while converting nine of 10 save opportunities after he was thrust into the closer’s role following the trades of Hand and Hudson. But then he wore down by season’s end, suffering two blown saves and three losses in the final three weeks, and watching his ERA skyrocket in the process. Finnegan probably isn’t big league closer material, but he has the arm and the mindset to be an effective setup man if he can find a level of consistency.

The Nationals thought they had one of the most consistently reliable setup men in the sport when they signed Harris to a three-year, $24 million contract prior to the 2020 season. The veteran hasn’t come close to living up to the contract, with a 4.56 ERA and 1.690 WHIP through two seasons in D.C. Worse, he’s only appeared in 28 games, shut down last year with thoracic outlet syndrome that required major surgery. The Nats will give the 37-year-old a chance to come back this spring, but at this point, anything positive they get from him has to be considered a bonus.

Among the throng of inexperienced relievers who got an opportunity to pitch in 2021, Andres Machado stood out as the most successful. An old rookie at 28 who actually made his major league debut in 2017 for the Royals, he wound up making 40 appearances for the Nats, finishing with a 3.53 ERA, 11 holds and showing some poise in high-leverage situations.

Mason Thompson came from the Padres in the Hudson trade with more of a pedigree, but the 6-foot-7 sinkerballer put a ton of runners on base (43 in only 21 2/3 innings) and will need to improve his command to make it long term. Patrick Murphy, claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays, struck out 23 batters in 18 2/3 innings but suffered a few notable implosions along the way.

Formerly a perennial candidate for the No. 5 starter’s job, Austin Voth shifted full-time to a bullpen role last year and took to the change well for a while. In 25 appearances through the end of June, he had a 2.75 ERA and 1.083 WHIP. But the right-hander was abysmal in the second half, with a gaudy 9.70 ERA, 2.156 WHIP and six blown saves over his final 24 games.

Every reliever mentioned so far is right-handed, and that’s a big part of the problem with the current makeup of the Nationals bullpen. They don’t have a single reliable lefty at this point. They hoped Sam Clay would develop into one, but his rookie season was mostly disappointing (5.60 ERA, 1.711 WHIP, .296 opponents’ batting average, .383 opponents’ on-base percentage) and ended at Rochester.

They did acquire Francisco Pérez off waivers from Cleveland and will give the 24-year-old southpaw, who had a 1.87 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 53 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last season, a chance to make the club out of spring training.

But suffice it to say the Nationals can’t reasonably expect to go into 2022 with a bullpen comprised strictly of pitchers currently in the organization. Multiple additions are still needed, and it’s up to Rizzo to ensure those additions are the right ones who can help make this unit respectable this season.

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