Player Profiles 2020: Washington Nationals Bullpen
Despite grading out with one of, if not the worst, bullpens in baseball, the Nationals were still able to win their first World Series title this past season. As a unit, their 1.48 wHIP and .800 OPS against ranked 27th, while their 5.66 ERA and 81.51 DIP% were dead last. Next season they will be returning much of what they finished the season with, plus the addition of reliever stalwart Will Harris. Former SP prospects Austin Voth and Erick Fedde figure to be in the running for a bullpen spot as well and could excel in the role. There’s a chance we see guys like Tanner Rainey take a step forward or possibly Wander Suero, but for now, this unit figures to finish in the middle of the pack for 2020.
|Sean Doolittle||Will Harris||Daniel Hudson||Tanner Rainey||Wander Suero||Roenis Elias/Hunter Strickland|
Closer – Sean Doolittle
One of the most effective closers when healthy, Sean Doolittle returns to the role for the Nationals in what will be a contract year for the 33-year-old. Doolittle ultimately showed some signs of regression in 2019, with his fastball continuing to lose velocity, a SwStr rate and K-BB% at their lowest since 2015 (12.1% and 19.6%, respectively) and career highs in FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. Relying heavily on his four-seam fastball, a pitch he’s consistently thrown over 88% of the time in his career, he only got a 1.9 pVAL from it last season, 16.2 points lower than in 2018, and the lowest mark of his career since 2015.
An even bigger question with Doolittle has and will be his health, as it remains to be seen if the left-hander can be productive for more than 50 innings in a season. After a strong first half, Doolittle hit a wall right before August, right as that 50-inning mark inched closer. He was placed on the IL in August with a knee injury and happened to return to form in September just in time for the Nationals’ playoff run. Given the tumultuous state of relief pitching around the league, Doolittle still provides enough safety as well as upside to warrant being one of the first 20 relievers off the board. You just might want to consider selling once he nears that 40- 50-inning mark in 2020.
Setup – Will Harris
One of the best relievers in baseball since joining the Astros in 2015, Will Harris should step in as the Nationals’ top setup man from day one. Harris has held a ground-ball rate over 50% since his time in Houston, while also bringing a K-BB% over 21% the past four seasons. Harris remains a two-pitch pitcher, featuring a cutter and curveball, with both being equally effective in 2019. The 35-year-old has seen some regression in his velocity over the past year, but not enough to warrant any concern just yet.
Since he’s coming from Houston, it’s no surprise that Harris ranks among the league’s best in spin rate on his pitches. He also finished 2019 in the 84th percentile for hard-hit rate while his .269 xWOBA was in the 89th percentile. Holds can be a deceiving stat, but it’s worth noting that since 2016, Harris ranks second among all pitchers with 90 holds, also picking up 18 saves while only being charged with nine blown saves. While a three-year, $24 million deal seems high for a non-closer reliever entering the back half of his 30s, it’s a good get for a Nationals team looking to repeat in 2020.
Setup – Daniel Hudson
Daniel Hudson re-signed with the Nationals on Tuesday and will return to a setup role in front of Doolittle. Hudson finished 2019 with a 2.47 ERA and 1.14 WHIP, but a 5.07 xFIP and 4.31 SIERA suggest the low ratios were likely a product of luck. Since moving to a relief role in 2015, Hudson had consistently logged SwStr rates above 12% for four straight seasons. Last year he saw that number dip to 9.9%, with hitters making more contact in the zone against him (86.2%) since 2009. Combined with a hard-hit rate that ranked in the 12th percentile last season, Hudson could be in store for some major regression this season. Treat Hudson as just a middling relief option in holds leagues with little strikeout upside.
Middle – Tanner Rainey
Despite an up-and-down season, Tanner Rainey figures to be a favorite for a bullpen spot to start the season. 2020 will be Rainey’s second full-time season at the MLB level with 2019 highlighting both the extreme highs and lows to Rainey’s game. Let’s start with the positives, as Rainey was at the top of the leaderboard, especially in the second half, when it comes to swing-and-miss ability. His K% puts him in the 98th percentile, and his 16.9% SwStr rate ranked 12th out of 197 relievers with at least 40 innings pitched. Rainey uses a two-pitch mix, with a fastball that gets up to 100, as well as a devastating slider that had a 31.4% SwStr rate and 6.5 pVAL last year.
Rainey also happened to miss bats in the wrong way, with his 17.8% BB rate the highest among 197 relievers with at least 40 innings pitched. When he was able to throw strikes, Rainey either got swings and misses or was hit hard, very hard, finishing in just the 3rd percentile for hard-hit rate. Also concerning are Rainey’s left/right splits, as they seem to indicate he needs to be limited to facing only same-side hitters. Right-handed hitters had a .139/.298/.228 slash line against him with a 46/19 K/BB rate over 30.1 IP, compared to lefties hitting .261/.420/.522 against him with a 28/19 K/BB rate over 18 IP. That’s quite the radical split and one that may be harder to work around with the new three-batter minimum rule this season. Rainey is still a very intriguing talent, one who has the stuff to fix some of these glaring issues and harness his true potential, but for now, he is more of a wait-and-see fantasy option in holds leagues.
Middle – Wander Suero
Wander Suero’s follow-up season to his impressive rookie campaign was ultimately a mixed bag, but one that proved he belongs in this bullpen. While 2020 saw Suero’s ERA and WHIP trend upward, he did see a drop in FIP and xFIP as well as a jump in his K-BB% and SwStr rate. A cutter/changeup specialist with great spin rate numbers (top 10 percent), Suero can attack hitters on both sides of the plate, making him a valuable innings-eater in the middle and end of games. Despite coming off a 19-hold season, Suero could find a hard time matching that total next year but should still be on holds-league players’ watch lists.
Middle – Roenis Elias/Hunter Strickland
Roenis Elias figures to be back in a middle/long relief role for 2020 and also should fill the team’s lefty reliever role, assuming Fernando Abad doesn’t make the 26-man roster. Despite the poor numbers, Elias does produce great spin rate on his fastball (92nd percentile), and his changeup finished with a 6.2 pVAL. Other than that, though, there’s nothing that sticks out in his profile to suggest any sort of potential breakout could happen. Assuming the rest of the bullpen stays healthy, Elias’s 16 SV+HLDS in 2019 should go down as a career high with 2020 a return to zero fantasy-relevance status.
Despite a horrible, injury-plagued 2019 season, I originally expected Hunter Strickland to find a spot in the Nationals’ Opening Day bullpen up until two days ago. Strickland’s always had a live arm but has consistently had trouble missing bats and commanding the strike zone. Still, his fastball has typically been reliable enough to give him some value, but last year the pitch took a huge step back in 24.1 IP. If he can find that pitch again, he should return to being a middling middle relief option who has no fantasy value.
James Bourque, Austin Williams, Kyle Finnegan, Jordan Mills
James Bourque wasn’t able to get through a full inning at the MLB level last season, but he still has a plus fastball/curveball combination to make some noise this season if he can harness his command. Austen Williams also saw MLB action this past season but failed to get through a full inning of work as he battled a shoulder injury for much of 2019. Williams was impressive in 2018, however, and if he can regain that form, he should see some innings out of the Nationals bullpen this year.
Recently signed to a minor league deal, Kyle Finnegan should finally make his MLB debut this season after productive stays at Double-A and Triple-A for Oakland in 2019. After impressing at Double-A the past two seasons, Jordan Mills struggled to adjust at the Triple-A level last year but should begin the season there and figures to be the Nationals’ most advanced left-handed relief prospect.
Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)