The Washington Nationals had a chance to get one of the top closers in the 2019 MLB Draft. The team selected left-handed reliever Matt Cronin with the 123rd overall pick in the 4th round. At the time, Cronin was a 21-year-old junior for the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. His stats included a K/BB rate of 2.87 and a .163 BAA to go with a 2.00 ERA. He made it to Single-A for the Nats in 2019, and then to 60-man player pool and assigned to the Alternate Training Site last year.
Last week, Baseball America moved Cronin up to the № 9 overall prospect in the Washington Nationals system.
“This is a guy who is a pure reliever,” MLB.com’s Jim Callis said after the draft. “And he’s one of the best in college baseball, so he can get [to the majors] pretty quick and if you like spin rates, you love Matt Cronin, because he’s got outstanding spin rates on both of his pitches. A 92-96 MPH fastball gets tremendous carry up in the strike zone. It’s one of those fastballs that seems like it rises, and then when you’re trying to deal with that, he has an over-the-top curveball, that could be a true hammer, in the mid-to-upper 70’s.”
Well guess what, Cronin is now much more than he was as you will read below, and his work with Minor League pitching coordinator Brad Holman has made an impact in the reliever’s repertoire. The lefty is listed at 6’2″ and 195 pounds. Callis is correct that Cronin could be quick to the Majors. In lefty reliever depth, the Nats have Brad Hand, Sam Clay, Luis Avilan, and Cronin — and not necessarily in that order. On the 40-man roster, Hand and Clay are the only lefty relievers.
“It’s an honor to be recognized [by Baseball America], but I’ve also worked very hard and having the opportunity at the alternate site I believe helped propel me past some other players,” Cronin told us.
Here is the scouting on Cronin from Baseball America along with their assessment:
SCOUTING REPORT: Cronin impresses with the spin on his 93-96 mph fastball and hammer 12-to-6 curveball, each of which grade as potential plus pitches. Cronin’s fastball works at the top and bottom of the zone, and his curve has late break and good depth. Facing more experienced hitters at the alternate site taught him he needed to attack the strike zone earlier in counts. Cronin uses a split grip on his changeup, which has a chance to become a viable third–if below-average–pitch. His focus is on his big fastball, and he’s not afraid to pitch inside to lefthanded and righthanded hitters.
That scouting report is already a little off. Cronin scrapped the 12-to-6 curveball and replaced it with a slurve, and he told us he is now throwing a split fastball. Yes, a splitter. That is the Jonathan Papelbon 3-pitch mix of fastball, breaking pitch and the splitter.
“I’m throwing a 4-seam fastball, a curveball, and a split-fastball,” Cronin told us. “I haven’t made any major changes on my [pitches] except on my curveball. I used to really try too hard to make it a true 12/6 pitch. But working with Brad Holman last summer we relaxed it a bit and tried to keep it true with my fastball causing it to slurve more now.”
There is a lot to be excited about here. After the Nats success with internal candidates like Wander Suero and Tanner Rainey, the Nats are showing that they are now developing relievers in-house and will be counting on Kyle Finnegan from last year’s bullpen. Cronin made the most of his time at the Alt Training site in Fredericksburg in 2020.
“My experience was great,” Cronin said. “I hate what Covid has done to the country and all over. But last summer was quite possibly my most productive year of baseball. Just a mix of being around those older guys and getting to pitch against better talent consistently really helped me develop some things in my game that I think will really help at the next level.”
With the Nats planning to carry 8 players in the bullpen, there could be an Opening Day opportunity for a second left-handed reliever to go in the ‘pen with Hand.
“I think I could compete for a spot,” Cronin said with a modest tone. “But I’m also pretty low on professional experience, so I think it just comes down to how the people making the decisions feel about me.”
We expect Cronin to be part of big league camp as a non-roster invitee (NRI), and he could get a chance to show what he has in Spring Training. For a player who has pitched in college, but only limited minor league experience in A-ball, it will be tough to win a spot out of Spring Training because he is not on the 40-man roster. But talent is talent.