Washington’s bullpen took a step forward in 2020, but is still a work in progress. Tanner Rainey emerged as the future closer. In 20.1 innings, he went 1-1, with a 2.66 ERA, 32 strikeouts, and a FIP of 3.78. The flamethrower still needs to work on his control, but was the team’s most reliable reliever in 2020. Outside of Rainey, the Nationals lack reliable options. Daniel Hudson and Will Harris both took huge steps back in 2020. Kyle Finnegan is promising but was inconsistent at times. Hudson and Harris should bounce back in 2021. Both were used excessively by their respective clubs in 2019, as each made the World Series. Missing the playoffs was a blessing in disguise as both can rest up and return to 2021 at full strength. Both Erick Fedde and Austin Voth will compete with Joe Ross for the fifth starter spot. I expect Ross to win out, leaving Fedde and Voth to duel it out for the long reliever role.
With plenty of holes, all over the roster, don’t expect the Nationals to splurge for a top-end reliever. While a player such as Liam Hendriks, would vastly improve the bullpen, the free-agent market is deep enough to come away with quality talent for far less. If the Nationals choose to splurge for a relief ace and miss out on Hendriks, Brad Hand, and Ken Giles are both reliable options. However, I hope the team equally allocates their money.
With Sean Doolittle reaching free agency, the question arises on whether to bring him back or not and the answer is absolutely. From 2017-2019, Doolittle was one of the best closers in the league, but overuse led to fatigue and injuries. Doolittle comes with red flags from his recent spree of injuries, but he showed in a small sample size at the end of the 2020 season that he was trajecting upwards. In four seasons with the Nats, Doolittle went 10-10, with a 3.03 ERA, 163 strikeouts, and a 3.41 FIP, while going 75 for 83 in save opportunities. The Dr. is still needed in D.C., even if he is no longer the closer.
If Washington decides to let Doolittle walk, sign Aaron Loup. The 32-year-old spent the first seven years of his career with the Toronto Blue Jays, but has been on three different teams since being traded in 2018. Loup’s career was trajecting downward, but this all changed when he signed a minor-league deal with the Tampa Bay Rays for the 2020 season. He quickly was named to the bullpen and made 24 appearances, going 3-2, with a 2.52 ERA, 22 strikeouts, and a 3.83 FIP. After his strong bounce-back season, Loup was a key bullpen piece during Tampa’s run to the World Series. In 5.1 innings during the postseason, Loup posted a 3.38 ERA, allowing only two runs while striking out seven. While teams chase after Brad Hand, Loup is a great compensation prize.
A back of the bullpen option Washington should set their eyes on is Kirby Yates. Yates was the best reliever in baseball in 2019, but injuries cut his 2020 season short. In 2019, Yates went 0-5, with a 1.19 ERA, and 101 strikeouts, while going 41 for 44 in save opportunities. In 2020, Yates only threw 4.1 innings and posted an ugly 12.46 ERA. He underwent season-ending surgery to have bone chips removed from his elbow. Yates will need to prove he can still perform at a high level. Signing a one-year prove-it deal, similar to Corey Kluber is his best option. Yates can rebuild his stock while Washington adds an elite reliever.
Another reliever Washington should target is old friend Mark Melancon. Melancon played half a season with the Nats in 2016, holding down the closer role. He left in free agency to join the Giants on a four-year deal worth $62 million. Melancon battled injuries and inconsistencies and was traded to Atlanta at the 2019 trade deadline. In a year and a half with the Braves, Melancon went 3-1, with a 3.30 ERA, 38 strikeouts, and a 2.81 FIP. Melancon adds another player who can close out games and thrives in high-pressure situations. Other names to keep an eye on include Shane Greene, Darren O’Day, Greg Holland, Trevor Rosenthal, and Blake Treinen.
For my projections, I went on the assumption rosters will be set at 26 for next season.
2021 Projected Starting Rotation:
2021 Projected Bullpen:
Austin Voth/Erick Fedde,
Aaron Loup/Sean Doolittle
Kirby Yates/Mark Melancon
The future of the bullpen rests on Hudson and Harris returning to their 2019 forms. If they can, then Washington will have multiple trusted options for the late innings, something the team has lacked in years past.