While most of the talk surrounding the Washington Nationals pitching staff this offseason has focused on the team’s otherworldly starting rotation, the bullpen will be just as important for the Nationals if they want to achieve their goals this season.
At one point this winter, there seemed to be a growing concern about the strength of the Nationals’ bullpen after the ballclub sent right-hander Tyler Clippard to the Athletics in the trade that brought infielder Yunel Escobar to D.C. Clippard had been arguably the Nationals’ best reliever for years, and not being able to send him out for the eighth inning is certainly a major loss for the Nationals.
But general manager Mike Rizzo is no fool, and he quickly made up for the loss of Clippard by acquiring right-hander Casey Janssen. Now, the Nationals’ bullpen is once again considered one of the team’s many strengths. Along with Janssen, Washington also boasts quality arms such as Craig Stammen, a great lefty in Jerry Blevins, a solid closer in Drew Storen, an extremely over-qualified long man in Tanner Roark, and several other players who are either bullpen mainstays or who have a chance to crack the Opening Day ‘pen this spring.
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But while all of these players are undoubtedly critical pieces of the bullpen, there is one player who probably doesn’t get as much attention as the others but could be one of the team’s most important relievers this season. His name is Matt Thornton, and after a dominant stint with the ballclub late last season, the left-hander will be a crucial part of the ‘pen in his first full season with the Nationals this year.
The Nationals acquired Thornton from the Yankees last August on a waiver claim that may very well have been the biggest waiver-wire bargain of the year. The Nationals needed a lefty specialist to complement an inconsistent Jerry Blevins down the stretch, and the team saw Thornton as the right man for the job –– a player who could be a lefty specialist down the stretch for whom the Nationals would not need to spend too much money or trade any valuable players. After claiming him from the Yankees for nothing more than the $3.5 million he’s owed this season, Thornton gave the Nationals all of that, and then some.
In 18 games with the Nationals last season, Thornton pitched 11 1/3 shutout innings while striking out eight batters and walking two. While it was a small sample size, Thornton clearly thrived with his new club after appearing in 46 games for the Yankees earlier in the year. On the season, Thornton went 1-3 with an impressive 1.75 ERA over 36 innings of work.
Not only did Thornton do a great job with the Nationals down the stretch but he also gave the team a reliable lefty specialist for important late-inning situations. Of course, the team acquired Blevins last offseason to fill that role, but Blevins was inconsistent at times last season and ended the year with a 4.87 ERA. While Blevins is probably the better pitcher of the two, Thornton gave manager Matt Williams another lefty option in the ‘pen––an option that proved to be extremely effective late in the season.
This year, the Nationals will once again rely on Thornton to, at the very least, complement Blevins as another left-handed specialist in the ‘pen. Given his performance and Blevins’ struggles last season, however, it wouldn’t be surprising if Thornton quickly becomes Williams’ top choice to face right-handers in key situations late in the game. He’s off to a good start this spring, allowing no runs on one hit over two-thirds of an inning.
The Nationals’ pitching staff is undoubtedly one of the best in baseball, and the bullpen is a big reason why. But when thinking of key relievers that could help the Nationals in critical situations late in the game, don’t count out Thornton. Because when Giancarlo Stanton comes up with the bases loaded in a tie game in the 6th inning, he may be our saving grace.