- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2021

There seems to come a time each summer, when the air gets especially hot and sticky in the District, that general manager Mike Rizzo makes his yearly move for additional relief pitchers.

In 2019, for instance, the Nationals secured for three relievers at the trade deadline — Daniel Hudson, Roenis Elias and Hunter Strickland. In 2018, a midsummer deal brought Kelvin Herrera to Washington. And Sean Doolittle, Brandon Kintzler and Ryan Madson all ended up in the nation’s capital in July 2017.

Rizzo wants to break that trend this season, even after the surprise release of veteran Jeremy Jeffress on Sunday for “personnel reasons.” Instead of waiting for July moves to resurrect a listing bullpen, Washington made a splash in the offseason to add another late-inning option to the mix, bolstering — at least on paper — a unit that hasn’t starred in recent seasons.

“I believe it’s probably the best depth that we’ve had at this time of year in quite a few years here,” Rizzo said. “We like our young depth, we like our veteran presence, and we think as far as a pitching staff as a whole, we really like where we’re at at this particular juncture of spring training.”

For each of the past four seasons, Washington’s bullpen ERA loomed above 4.00. In 2019 and 2020, those issues have been especially pronounced, with a combined 5.39 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP.



There were bright spots in the shortened 2020 campaign, though, coming in the form of Tanner Rainey and Kyle Finnegan. Other returners, such as Hudson and Will Harris, left little need for a total bullpen makeover this offseason.

Still, Harris said he remembered telling his brother he felt like the Nationals could use one more proven reliever as a late-inning option. And as if Rizzo heard him, Washington signed left-hander Brad Hand on a one-year, $10.5-million deal.

Hand led the major leagues with 16 saves last season for the Cleveland Indians to go along with his 2.05 ERA and 0.773 WHIP.

“I was pumped,” Harris said of his reaction to Hand’s signing. “Brad’s obviously, his track record speaks for itself.”

Hand, Harris, Hudson and Rainey give manager Dave Martinez a slew of options late in games, although Rainey has battled a muscle strain near his right collarbone. Martinez said he expects the right-hander to be prepared for Opening day, and Rainey was scheduled to throw 20 pitches off the mound Monday after pausing his preparations for a few days.

“It’s good to have a lot of guys down there that are able to get the job done,” Hand said, “because throughout the course of the year, we’re gonna need every single one of them to be able to get to where we want to go.”

When the Nationals added Jeffress about two weeks ago on a minor league deal, the deal seemed to secure another proven veteran for an already strong bullpen. The 33-year-old was coming off a 2020 season in which he held a 1.54 ERA and a 0.943 WHIP.

But Jeffress was released Sunday for a “personnel matter,” and Rizzo sidestepped follow-up questions asking for elaboration. The general manager said it was an “employment issue” and didn’t have anything to do with his on-field performance.

Jeffress had been suspended twice by MLB for “drugs of abuse” — which doesn’t include performance-enhancing drugs. He was arrested in 2012 for domestic violence charges that were later dropped, and he pleaded guilty for driving while intoxicated in 2016. But Rizzo declined to say the exact reasoning for Jeffress’ release, and Jeffress appeared to defend himself after the decision.

“I’m not what they say I am, I’m what God says!” Jeffress tweeted Sunday. “I don’t deserve this false negativity!”

Without Jeffress in the mix, Rizzo still envisions a strong bullpen. He pointed to Finnegan and Wander Suero as arms who could compete for Jeffress’ spot, as well as several left-handers — such as Sam Clay or Seth Romero.

Those players, plus the four arms expected to hold down the late-inning duties, give the Nationals hope a late-summer trade to amend their bullpen won’t be required this time around.

“That’s how you win,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “You got to have a good bullpen and keep those games close whether you’re ahead or behind.”

Extensions: Rizzo said the club has had internal discussions with team ownership about long-term extensions for Juan Soto and Trea Turner. Both players signed one-year deals for the 2021 campaign. Turner won’t become a free agent until after the 2022 season and Soto has until 2024.

“We’ve discussed internally with ownership about it and we’re in the midst of making decisions on what a time frame would look like,” Rizzo said. “We certainly have made and will make a long-term extension offer to both players sometime in the near future.”

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