Who grabs the last spot(s) on the Opening Day roster for the pitchers?

Joe Ross warms up in the bullpen; Photo by LEGNats for TalkNats

There is no debating how Washington Nationals’ general manager Mike Rizzo builds his rosters around starting pitching. There is a valid debate however on how Rizzo has built his bullpens over the years and what that has cost him in terms of trade capital to beef up his failed bullpens. This time, Rizzo went after the best available closer on the free agent market, Brad Hand, to solidify his 2021 bullpen.

“We worked on getting some bullpen help. Adding Brad Hand was huge,” manager Dave Martinez said.

Even before the Nats added pitchers they inked pitching coach Jim Hickey to a deal. He will have considerable input into personnel moves and pitcher’s development. After acquiring Hand, it did not mean that Davey’s bullpen is complete.

“As you know we have [Tanner] Rainey, [Daniel] Hudson, [Will] Harris, [Wander] Suero, [Kyle] Finnegan, and some other guys that we like. [Luis] Avilan that we picked up that’s left-handed that we like,” Martinez said.

Sam Clay, that we picked up, he looked really good [on Thursday] throwing for the first time. I really liked his action on his ball. We have some guys that we can plug in if need be, but we’ll have to see what transpires this Spring.”

“I love the back end of our bullpen right now. It’s kind of nice. Like I said, you have Hand, Huddy, Harris, Rainey, Finnegan threw the ball well last year. Still have Suero.”

That made it easy as Davey Martinez just gave you the names of the six locks so far. There is also the case to be made for Austin Voth who is out of options and could be the long-man and do some mop-up duty. He could also be DFA’d if the team believes they have better options.

The manager also is indicating the last spot could go to a lefty. He mentioned two lefties in particular: Luis Avilan and Sam Clay. Keep in mind, Avilan is not on the 40-man roster while Clay is. In addition there is Ben Braymer who is on the roster. Veteran T.J. McFarland was acquired last week via a minor league deal and brings an impressive “hi lev” statline from 2020. McFarland converted his seven hold chances with no blown saves last year while also earning two wins and no losses. In “low lev”, McFarland was awful. It seems that he needs the adrenaline flowing to step up. Avilan is coming off the worst season of his career in terms of WHIP (1.680) and FIP (5.95). For Clay, he has no Major League experience, and Braymer showed last year that he could fit in a hybrid role as he pitched out of the bullpen and made a key start with a 5.0 inning shutout for the Nats. The long-shot is Matt Cronin. His three pitch mix with the splitter is the Jonathan Papelbon arsenal, and the big difference is Cronin is a southpaw. While he might be a long-shot for the Opening Day ‘pen, Cronin looks like a star in the making.

Our best guess today has the bullpen looking like this:

  1. Brad Hand (L)
  2. Daniel Hudson
  3. Will Harris
  4. Tanner Rainey
  5. Kyle Finnegan
  6. Wander Suero
  7. Austin Voth
  8. TBD (L)

What is interesting is that Rizzo felt that Hand really wanted the Nats. Remember, a week before the Nats signed Hand there were multiple reports that the lefty had signed with the Mets.

Whether Ken Rosenthal had bad intel or the Mets really were in agreement, that part of the story has not been told on what happened. Instead, days later, the Nats made it official and signed Hand in a creative $10.5 million deal with $6.5 million paid out this year and the rest deferred over the following three seasons.

“I think it was — I often say to you guys it takes two-to-tango. I think Brad Hand wanted to be with the Nationals,” Rizzo said. “The structure of his contract shows that he wanted to be here. If we didn’t structure it that way he would not be here, but you’re talking about one of the really good relief pitchers in the game.”

“We thought that we had a hole in the left-handed side of our bullpen, especially the late-inning, left side of our bullpen, and I think Brad just gives Davey another great option to get important outs at the back end of games.”

“He’s really consistent against left-handed and right-handed hitters,” Rizzo said of the lefty, who held left-hand hitters to a .125/.222/.125 line, and right-hand hitters to a .174/.227/.275 line in 2020.”

“He’s done it at the highest level and he’s performed terrific. It was a good get by us and it was helped by that Brad wanting to be here.”

Last season, the Nats bullpen blew 45 percent of their save opportunities, and Hand somehow was a perfect 16-for-16 in saves for his former team.

“The starting rotation that [we’ve] got, I think we’ve got a good chance to go deep into the playoffs,” Hand said after he was acquired. “That was big [for me]. Obviously, this is going to be one of the tougher divisions in baseball, competition-wise. We’re going to have to be ready to go and prepared for that, but I like our chances.”

The vaunted Nats rotation of course has to get back to being great. There are 39 pitchers in camp. If Joe Ross is the fifth man in the rotation, the starters are set with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin (L), Jon Lester (L), and Ross.

“I want Joe [Ross] to be in our starting rotation,” Martinez said early in the offseason. “I know he’s doing well, and feels great and can’t wait to get back on the mound and get to Spring Training. So yah, it’s wide open for him. I missed him last year [due to his COVID opt-out]. We could have used him.”

The depth behind Ross would be Erick Fedde, Rogelio Armenteros, and Braymer, who are all on the 40-man roster. Then the Nats have four top prospects like Jackson Rutledge, Cade Cavalli, Cole Henry and Tim Cate who are all in their first big league camp.

“When you hear the names Jackson Rutledge, Cavalli, Cole Henry, and Tim Cate — these are starting pitching prospects who could impact the big league club as early as some time in 2021,” Rizzo said on a ZOOM for invited guests in January.

You could certainly expect to see one or more of those top prospects make their MLB debut as a spot starter as the 27th player in a doubleheader. Usually that player is chosen by whoever is doing well at the time but also lines up with the proper rest days to fit into the schedule.

As camp goes on, there will be additional clarity on who is emerging and worthy to take a roster spot. Sometimes it comes down to who is on the 40-man roster, but this is one of the big storylines of every camp as to who gets the last roster spot.

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