Tanner Rainey On The Rise

With Sean Doolittle stumbling, Tanner Rainey is set up...to setup.

Tanner Rainey shoved again.

That’s no longer news to close followers of the Washington Nationals. Rainey’s well-known for hurling triple-digit heat, but he’s refined his arsenal over the past year and a half, showcasing the full spread – in a 10-pitch 7th-inning hold against the Orioles of Baltimore on Saturday night. Here he is with a slider that’s shown vast improvement over the last season plus.

Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post certainly took note: Tanner Rainey continues to look unhittable. He got through the seventh on 10 pitches, nine of them strikes, and buried two sliders for swinging strikeouts. So far, no one is up in the bullpen behind him.”

In his six appearances before tonight, Rainey had logged a total of 5 2/3 innings with the lone blemish being a solo shot by Teoscar Hernandez. The blast from Hernandez is the only run surrendered by Rainey – but it’s also the only hit he’s given up on the young season. He granted two free passes versus seven strikeouts. Yes, it’s a super small sample in the grand scheme of things, but going back to last season, Rainey looks like a valuable part of the Nationals bullpen.

Rainey’s Rise

Lest we forget, Rainey was an unsung hero in last season’s turnaround. When the bullpen began to implode early in the year, the Nats didn’t wait long before tapping Rainey. He appeared for the first time on May 20th and quickly helped stanch the bleeding in the 7th and 8th innings. He’d end the year with a 3.91 ERA/4.37 FIP in 48 1/3 innings across 52 appearances.

Lots of things are given credit for the Nats about-face from 19-31 laughingstock to World Series champs: Trea Turner’s return from injury, Anthony Rendon’s return from injury, Gerardo Parra’s baby shark craze, etc. I’m not for an instant suggesting that Rainey keyed the turnaround – but I do want to add his contribution to the pile.

Rainey joined the club just two days shy of their low water mark, and though it certainly took some time for the Nats to trust him with high-leverage opportunities, it didn’t take long for him to find a role holding leads.

Which was, believe it or not, all part of the plan.

Rainey’s Road

Last offseason, the Nats were a little short on cash after splurging on #3 starter Patrick Corbin, and while that turned out to be money well spent, it left them a little light in the pocketbook to fill out the rest of the roster. With long-time back-end, hurly-burly Tanner Roark on a one-year, $10MM deal, Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo made a savvy more to free up cash and insure his bullpen.

Rizzo sent the final season of Roark’s deal to the Reds for Rainey, a well thought of prospect, though slightly old at 26 years of age. Still, 100 mph heat meant the former 2nd-rounder hadn’t fallen off the map yet. He was still very much thought of as a future bullpen piece.

Still, that didn’t stop the Reds from giving away six years of his control to the Nats in exchange for one year of Roark. This rarely-seen swap of Tanners should end up as a net positive for the Nationals, who got 9 holds out of Rainey in 2019.

For the record, the Reds did just fine for themselves, getting 21 starts out of Roark before “paying it forward,” shipping the remainder of Roark’s contract to the A’s for Jameson Hannah.

The Nats saved themselves $10MM by moving Roark and replaced him with Anibal Sanchez. They spent more total money by nabbing Sanchez, but less AAV, and Sanchez put in a more than solid season in 2019, proving to be an upgrade over Roark. The Cardinals certainly wish they’d stuck with Roark:

Rainey’s Role

Moving forward, Tanner Rainey has the potential to become a key piece of manager Dave Martinez’s bullpen. Especially after Sean Doolittle’s performance continues to look like this:

Doolittle has gone through a couple of homer-happy spells this season and last, and he’s firmly in the middle of one now. His struggles tonight put extra pressure on Daniel Hudson, who was unable to retire the first hitter he faced in more than 10 pitches. It went downhill from there:

Hudson has been called on for two-inning saves a number of times in his short Washington tenure, but he couldn’t get out of trouble tonight.

Martinez insists that he’s not going to give up on Doolittle, and while that’s almost certainly true, it doesn’t mean there won’t be increased opportunities for someone else to step into the late-inning, high-leverage role. It could be as simple as using Doolittle for a batter or two in the eighth instead of the whole inning. With offseason acquisition Will Harris still out, the guy to step in could/should be Rainey.

Tanner Rainey has been and will continue to be pretty far down the list of Nationals’ fan favorites, but he’s been a solid contributor for a season plus now. During their postseason run, Martinez trusted very few arms out of his bullpen, relying mostly on six guys to get through the four rounds: Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Corbin, Sanchez, Doolittle, and Hudson.

But there was a seventh guy Martinez relied on to get wins in the postseason. His name is Tanner Rainey, and so far in 2020, he’s shoving.

(Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire)

TC Zencka

TC Zencka contributes regularly to Pitcher List, and MLB Trade Rumors. Come say hi on Twitter.

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