- The Washington Times - Monday, January 25, 2021

The start of spring training may be up in the air after local and state leaders in Arizona asked MLB on Monday to delay opening camps due to pandemic concerns. But whether baseball cranks back up on-time in mid-February or later, the Nationals are going in restocked and reloaded.      

The 2019 World Series champs fell to last in the NL East in the coronavirus-shortened 2020 campaign and entered this offseason with big holes on the roster: Washington needed a corner outfielder, a fourth starter, a first baseman and a lefty reliever.

But in recent weeks general manager Mike Rizzo has, one-by-one, checked almost all those boxes. 

First came the acquisition of Josh Bell, who should take the lion’s share of starts at first base while Ryan Zimmerman provides depth. Next came the signings of Kyle Schwarber and Jon Lester, two former Chicago Cubs who could fill the need in the outfield and in the starting rotation if they rediscover their form.

And the latest signing, adding left-hander Brad Hand on a reported one-year, $10.5 million deal, adds an experienced reliever to a bullpen that’s caused problems for Washington in the past.

The Nationals’ offseason work isn’t totally complete — they still need an additional catcher and could benefit from another infielder — but the team appears to be just about set for opening day.

When that opening day might come depends on negotiations between MLB and the players’ union. According to the Associated Press, talks about a possible one-month delay are stalled over union concerns that players won’t be paid for canceled games.

Once the Nationals are back in action, Hand will likely slot in as one of several late-game options for manager Dave Martinez, along with Tanner Rainey, Will Harris and Daniel Hudson. Hand is the lone southpaw among that group, setting him up for key matchups with some of the league’s best left-handed hitters, such as the Phillies’ Bryce Harper.

While Hand’s fastball velocity has dipped in recent seasons, the 30-year-old reliever’s slider remains a devastating out pitch. According to Brooks Baseball, a site that tracks pitch usage and the outcomes when using those pitches, nearly 39% of the swings Hand forced with his slider in 2020 resulted in a whiff — down from 42.73% in 2019, Hand’s last full season.

The batting average against his slider rose to .220 last year, but since he began using the pitch in 2015, batters have struggled to reach base against it. Between 2016 and 2018, Hand kept batters under a .160 average when using his slider. That increased to .200 in 2019, but he still put together an All-Star campaign with the Cleveland Indians, finishing with 84 strikeouts and 34 saves.

Hand was one of the premier left-handed relievers on the market, coming off a shortened 2020 season in which he led the league with 16 saves. He didn’t give up a home run in his 22 innings and held a 2.05 ERA, the lowest of his career.

Hand has reinvented himself over the course of his career. He began as a starter with the Marlins, but he transitioned into long relief roles toward the end of his time in Miami. When he joined the San Diego Padres, Hand began finishing games instead. He earned at least 21 saves in each of his last three full seasons, split between San Diego and Cleveland.

If the three-time All-Star selection can continue that sort of success, he’ll round out a bullpen that could be much improved from years past.

Last year, Washington’s bullpen ERA was 4.62 — ranking No. 23 in MLB. The year before, Washington relievers were the second-worst in the league at 5.68.

Should Rainey build off an impressive 2020 — and if Harris and Hudson rebound from off years — the back end of the bullpen could be sound. There are a lot of ifs involved, though.

The Nationals still need depth at catcher and in the infield.

Yan Gomes will need a partner or backup to share the load behind the dish, and while manager Dave Martinez said he was “100%” behind Carter Kieboom at third base, Rizzo could look to strengthen the infield with a move for a second or third baseman.

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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