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This year’s Nationals bullpen might be good

Can a few key additions turn the DC bullpen from a weakness into a strength?

World Series - Washington Nationals v Houston Astros - Game Seven
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The 2019 Nationals bullpen famously stunk. The biggest challenge Dave Martinez had to overcome in October was how he would avoid using any of his relievers not named Daniel Hudson or Sean Doolittle. The 2020 crew should be much better if only because it would be hard to get much worse than they were last year. Daniel Hudson, who recorded the final out of Washington’s championship run, re-signed with the team on Monday, and last week, Will Harris, who gave up the winning run of Game Seven, also joined the Nats bullpen.

There are few places to go but up for a relief squad that ranked 29th in ERA and 26th in FIP. Slotting in replacement arms at the back of the ‘pen would have been an upgrade over starting the season with 2019 versions of Trevor Rosenthal or Kyle Barraclough. The problem is that Washington had trouble even finding those level of talent players. The Nationals used 25 different pitchers out of the bullpen in 2019 (27 if you count Brian Dozier and Gerardo Parra), and over half were sub-replacement by fWAR.

To really hammer home how putrid the Nationals bullpen was, Hunter Strickland made it onto the Nats’ postseason roster despite a horrible short tenure. Strickland gave up 12 runs, including five homers, in 24 innings.

Hudson is unlikely to be as lights-out as he was with Washington after they acquired him from the Blue Jays. In 2019, Hudson’s swinging strike rate fell to 9.9 percent, his lowest since 2014. In no year between 2015-2018 did that number drop below 12.0 percent. Hudson’s effectiveness wasn’t a total mirage. He’s still a talented pitcher and his fastball velocity even ticked up slightly in 2019 as he relied on the pitch more than ever.

Harris is an immediate and obvious upgrade. Since his first full season in 2013, Harris hasn’t posted a FIP higher than 3.66. He doesn’t exactly light up the radar guns either, instead, he relies on exceptional movement. Harris is the unconventional two-pitcher pitcher who throws a cutter and a curve. Last year, those pitches ranked first and seventh in pitch values among relievers. According to Baseball Savant, his curveball boasts more than four inches of vertical and horizontal movement than other curves thrown at similar speeds and from similar release points.

Hudson and Harris (re)join the survivors of the 2019 bullpen, a group that despite their results and Martinez’ aversion to them in the postseason, isn’t without their upside. Sean Doolittle is a known quality. Even he wasn’t immune to the infectious fog working through the Washington bullpen, but he’s still only a year removed from his typical, stellar self.

Tanner Rainey’s fastball-slider combination is deadly assuming he can throw strikes. Wander Suero pitched better than his bloated ERA would suggest. Suero suffered from a high BABIP (.326) and low strand rate (66.3 percent), but he also saw a three percentage point jump in swinging strike rate. Roenis Elías, who the Nationals acquired from the Mariners in a midseason trade, should have regular luck with the long ball next year.

Behind them, the Nationals also have Austin Voth, a swingman who boasts a 91st percentile spin on his curveball, Fernando Abad, who looked competent in limited time with the Giants last season, and Hunter Strickland, who has a tendency to groove fastballs, but there are certainly worse options for the back of a bullpen.

If the Nationals aren’t done upgrading their bullpen, there are still plenty of flyers they could take; for instance, Hector Rondón and Brandon Kintzler are still available. If Washington needs another lefty, they could kick Robbie Erlin’s tires. Even with a few more additions, the Nationals won’t have one of the best bullpens in baseball, but they won’t have one of the worst either.

Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.