On paper, Washington’s bullpen is finally stacked.
Washington’s bullpen has always been the team’s Achilles heel, letting them down at the most inopportune times. Game five of the 2012 NLDS. Game two of the 2014 NLDS. Games four and five of the 2016 NLDS. Game five of the 2017 NLDS. You get the picture.
Year after year, Mike Rizzo and company have experimented with different relievers, always making trades to bring in high-profile guys. Rafael Soriano, Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, Sean Doolittle, Mark Melancon, Hunter Strickland, and Roenis Elias have all come and gone, with Melancon, Kintzler, and Doolittle being the only ones to have any success in the Nation’s capital.
After years of bullpen frustration, came 2019. Washington’s relief core hit an all-time low, finishing 29th in ERA. To counteract this, during the playoffs, Martinez only used a trusted few relievers while also utilizing his starters in relief. This culminated with the franchise winning its first-ever World Series title.
Fast forward to now and the bullpen finally projects to be a position of strength. In the past, the bullpen had a couple of notable options with question marks surrounding the rest of the pen, but that is no longer the case. Washington’s relief core is seven deep, filled by Tanner Rainey, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson, Brad Hand, Kyle Finnegan, Wander Suero, and Jeremy Jeffress. One of Erick Fedde or Austin Voth will become the team’s long reliever. Not everyone is a household name, but they all produce results.
A Lights Out Pen
Tanner Rainey is the most electric of the bunch, known for his overpowering heater and high strikeout rate. He suffers from control issues but has already shown improved results. During his rookie season in 2019, he had a K/9 rate of 13.8, a BB/9 rate of 7.1, a HR/9 rate of 1.1, and an H/9 rate of 6.0. In 2020, he was able to raise his K/9 rate, while lowering his BB/9 rate, and H9 rate to 14.2, 3.1, and 3.5 respectively. However, his home run rate increased to 1.8. Overall, Rainey was able to find the strike zone on a consistent basis and he became a monster because of it. He finished 2020 1-1, with a 2.66 ERA, and 32 strikeouts in only 20.1 innings.
Since arriving in San Diego in 2016, Brad Hand has become one of the best relievers in the game, posting a 2.66 ERA with them during three seasons. He is fresh off a season with the Indians, where he went 2-1, with a 2.05 ERA, 29 strikeouts, and a 1.37 FIP, while going 16-16 in save opportunities. The veteran has suffered from a loss of velocity over the last few seasons, but has been able to adapt. The best lefty reliever on the open market, he was brought in to replace Sean Doolittle.
Signed before the start of the 2020 season, Kyle Finnegan has been a pleasant surprise. After bouncing through Oakland’s farm system, he became a free agent and Mike Rizzo scooped him up. Last year he was impressive, going 1-0, with a 2.92 ERA, 27 strikeouts, and a 3.76 FIP in 24.2 innings.
Daniel Hudson was acquired at the 2019 trade deadline and turned into the team’s best reliever. In 25 innings, he went 3-1, with a 1.44 ERA, and 23 strikeouts, while recording six saves in eight opportunities. Re-signed after helping the team win the World Series, Hudson was awful in 2020. He went 3-2, with a 6.10 ERA, 28 strikeouts, and a 6.29 FIP. He is only a year away from being an elite option with Washington and will benefit from a full Spring Training. Expect the veteran to rebound nicely.
Will Harris has been nothing but reliable during his nine-year career. Known for his time with the Astros where he went 18-13, with a 2.36 ERA, 315 strikeouts, and a 2.99 FIP, Washington signed him before the start of the 2020 season. Unfortunately, he was bothered by injuries early on and finished the season with a 3.09 ERA and 4.55 FIP. Harris was awful with runners in scoring position (RISP). Opposing hitters torched him for a .357 average with four runs scored in 14 chances. Similar to Hudson, Washington needs Harris to bounce back in order for the bullpen to be fully effective.
Jeremy Jeffress is best known for his time with the Milwaukee Brewers, with whom he spent seven seasons. He was a key component in the Brew Crew’s 2018 bullpen, which was a win away from the World Series. After having an outstanding 2020 with the Cubs, Mike Rizzo recently signed him to a minor-league deal, but he is a frontrunner to make the roster. Last year he was a godsend for the Cubs, going 4-1, with a 1.54 ERA, and 17 strikeouts. However, his FIP of 4.09 is something to keep an eye on.
Rounding out the bullpen is Wander Suero and either Erick Fedde or Austin Voth. Suero is a favorite of Dave Martinez. Suero has impressive movement, but similar to Rainey has been immensely inconsistent over the years. Both Fedde and Voth were a part of the Nationals 2020 rotation, but neither were able to plant themselves as vital pieces. Now that Joe Ross is back, the two will be competing for the long reliever role, a title that suits both of them better.
Washington’s 2021 bullpen benefits from having four players with closer experience, while Rainey is being groomed to take over the role down the road. With plenty of reliable options, Martinez has his work cut out for him. Hopefully, the pen can live up to its immense potential.