The best reliever in the free agent mix was Brad Hand who never appeared to be on the Washington Nationals radar until this weekend. A few minutes ago, Jon Heyman of the MLB Network, broke the news that the Nats were closing in on Hand, and shortly afterwards Jeff Passan of ESPN confirmed that the Nats in fact signed Hand to a one-year deal for $10.5 million. That salary for the closer will blow the Nats past the $190 million mark in payroll to $194 million.
Nats closing in on a Brad Hand
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) January 25, 2021
A week ago, numerous reports said it was the Mets who had signed Hand, and later those reports were retracted. It never appeared that the Nats would spend big for the back of their bullpen after they acquired Will Harris last year and re-signed Daniel Hudson, but the team had a need for a lefty arm in the bullpen and Hand took care of that need. In the past, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has used the July trade deadline to make adjustments in his bullpen mid-season and has a history of multiple trades like he did in the past for Jonathan Papelbon, Mark Melancon, Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, and Hudson.
The bullpen just got a lot deeper by adding the 3-time All-Star reliever. Hand turns 31 in March, and is a career 2.96 ERA as a reliever. As a converted starter, Hand went into the bullpen full-time in San Diego back in 2016 and emerged as one of the best in the game.
After the 2020 season, Cleveland did not pick up Hand’s $10 million option, and they dangled him out there on waivers and he went unclaimed. Why? Timing is everything and probably because teams thought they could snag him for millions less. Hand cleared waivers and became a free agent and pocketed $1 million in a buyout from Cleveland plus will make more on this new deal with the Nats. The Indians traded with San Diego to get Hand during the 2018 season and in 2019 the lefty recorded 34 saves and had the most saves with 16 in the truncated 2020 season.
One of the concerns with Hand has been the annual drop in velocity on his fastball year-over-year from 2018 through the 2020 season from 93.8 mph to 91.4 and a drop in his whiff rate to 10.5% last year, but the saves were saved and the results were the results and all of that was excellent. In his tenure with Cleveland, Hand pitched to a 2.78 ERA and a 2.62 FIP over 107 relief innings with an impressive K/BB rate of 4.4-to-1.
At FanGraphs, they have Hand projected at a +0.9 WAR which was the best of all remaining free agent relievers. This acquisition moved the Nats to a .514 winning percentage of 83.27 wins in their projections. Relievers do not move the needle much on $/WAR but closers impact wins at the end of games more than any other player. That was Rizzo’s goal here after Daniel Hudson last year blew five saves in fifteen chances. Will Harris blew three of four save opportunities. In total, the Nats had 22 save opportunities in 2020 and blew 10 of them combined for a 55% success rate. By the way, Hand was a perfect 16-for-16 in save conversions last year. Normally your best closers convert on 85-90% of save opportunities. If Hudson and Harris were at 85% of save conversions, the Nats might have had 5 more wins in 2020 and of course 5 fewer losses. So yes, this had to be Rizzo’s thinking in 2021.
Here is what the Nats’ bullpen could look like after the Hand acquisition:
|Brad Hand LHP Closer|
|Daniel Hudson RHP Set-up|
|Will Harris RHP Set-up|
|Tanner Rainey RHP Set-up|
|Kyle Finnegan RHP Fireman|
|Wander Suero RHP Hybrid|
|Austin Voth RHP Long-man|
Once Hand and LHP Jon Lester are officially added to the roster, the Nats will have 38 players on their 40-man roster.