The complexion of the Nats bullpen changed today!

Kyle Finnegan warms up in the Nats bullpen; Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

On February 22nd as news broke of Jeremy Jeffress signing a minor league deal, it appeared he would have the clearest path to the final spot in the Washington Nationals bullpen. In less than two weeks on the Spring Training roster, Jeffress is gone. Things rarely appear that simple on clear paths to the roster.

When Jeffress was unceremoniously released, general manager Mike Rizzo stated, “He was released for personnel reasons” and no further explanation was given as barbs and jabs were flying on Twitter after Jeffress put out a series of cryptic tweets. With Opening Day in twenty-five days, the battle for the final roster spot(s) are whittled down by the first cut of Spring Training.

“We’ll see [Jeffress] fairly soon,” manager Dave Martinez said three days ago. “Here’s a guy that came to Spring Training — he’s ready. The first time I saw him throw — he threw the ball really well. I asked him, ‘Have you been throwing?’ He said, ‘Yah, religiously.’ But he looks great. I watched him throw yesterday. The ball was coming out really nice. So a couple more live BPs maybe, and then we’ll get him in a game.”

That was then, and this is now. We are back to the thinking that the team might want another left-handed arm in the bullpen, but as mentioned before, Wander Suero has reverse splits and might keep the team looking for the best bullpen arms regardless of what hand the pitcher throws the ball from. Ryne Harper, Dakota Bacus, and Suero, from the 2020 bullpen, have been the most impressive relievers in camp to date, but we must mention the caveat that sample sizes are minuscule at two innings, each.

From the new guys, the left-handed Sam Clay looks the best by far, as few of the new additions have impressed, unless you want to include the team’s closer, Brad Hand. So far, Matt Cronin, T.J. McFarland and Luis Avilan have struggled early as part of those new faces in camp, and all of them are on minor league deals with Cronin still pre-rookie and under maximum team control. Key word “early” as the looks at these players are very limited. Other pitchers from the 2020 bullpen who have had some early struggles are Kyle Finnegan and Kyle McGowin. While Finnegan has an inside track for a bullpen spot, he has to perform at a high level especially considering he has minor league options. The same for McGowin and others.

“I’m excited to be part of it,” Sam Clay told us. “I feel like what I do best is get a lot of groundballs. .. And get a lot of strikeouts. I try to pound the zone as much as possible. … I’m feeling confident in all of  my pitches. There are a lot of good pitchers here [competing]. So I’m trying to give myself the best opportunity to compete and get a spot.”

Other honorable mentions are Gabe Klobosits and Bryan Bonnell. Both have looked good, but both have also faced mostly minor league players late in games. That is a key point to remember. Some pitchers are not facing projected starters in these Spring Training games which leads to the issue of evaluating striking out guys who may never play in a Major League game. But good on Klobo and Bonnell for getting out the guys you’re supposed to get out.

One other name to mention is the lefty Ben Braymer who has also looked good while facing some tougher hitters. He has an MLB track record, and he has started one game of 5.0 innings of shutout baseball, and he has two relief appearances on his ledger which makes him a hybrid guy, and an intriguing candidate to make this team.

“I don’t have a preference on starting or relieving. Kind of as needed, and that’s probably how the team looks at me to a certain extent,” Braymer told us. “Right now I’m stretching out as a [potential] starter. … The team does have the luxury still develop me a little more as a starter given my age. So I think that’s the role I’m looking at right now. Should something come up and a different role needs to be filled then I think I’d have an opportunity to fill it.”

That was certainly consistent with 2020 for Braymer who filled dual roles for the team, and that is kind of the definition of a hybrid role where you do both relieving and make some starts as well as some short work. As a lefty, Braymer might have an advantage plus he is currently on the 40-man roster.

Now to Tanner Rainey who has not thrown in a game yet as he works his way back from a new injury described by Martinez as a “minor muscle strain” near his right collarbone. The right-hander was shut down for several days, and is now throwing from 90 feet on flat ground. Rainey is considered the most promising young arm in the Nats’ bullpen, but he has to stay healthy to be worth a spot on the roster.

“He threw the ball the other day with no discomfort,” Martinez said mid-week. “We’re going to get him built up and back on the mound as soon as possible.”

“We definitely wanted to bring him to camp and kind of take it easy. I know he worked out and did a lot of stuff this offseason. He said he threw quite a bit. With that being said, our discussion with him was just to kind of get him going slow like we do with the rest of the guys — Hudson, Hand, Harris — and get him in that program.”

“As of right now, he’ll be ready to go. He’ll get about six or seven outings. Hopefully by the end, we’ll have him (pitch) back-to-back days. Like I said, he feels better. He’s anxious to get on the mound. But right now, we’re being very cautious and trying to take things slow.”

Tentatively, this looks like the players with the clearest path today to a bullpen spot, and Austin Voth is out of options and either makes the team as a starter or a bullpen arm. As mentioned, Rainey has not pitched and Finnegan has been shaky so far.

  1. Brad Hand (L)
  2. Daniel Hudson
  3. Will Harris
  4. Tanner Rainey
  5. Kyle Finnegan
  6. Wander Suero
  7. Austin Voth
  8. TBD
  9. Possibly the team will go with a 9th bullpen arm early in the season

There you have it for the latest on the bullpen situation.


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