The Nationals have struck a one-year deal with reliever Joe Blanton, pending a physical, according to Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post (via Twitter). Blanton is slated to receive a $4MM guarantee with $1MM in available incentives, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports tweets.
$3MM of that salary will be deferred, as Jon Heyman of Fan Rag (via Twitter) and Barry Svrluga of the Washingon Post (Twitter links) report, with $1MM payable in 2018 and the other $2MM kicked to 2019. Blanton will take home an additional $250K apiece upon reaching fifty and sixty innings, along with a nice $500K payout if he gets to seventy.
Though he’s coming off of a second consecutive season of steady bullpen production, the 36-year-old had languished on the market this offseason. When catcher Matt Wieters joined the Nats, Blanton was left as the last available name on MLBTR’s list of the top fifty free agents.
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It’s easy to see the fit in D.C., where the bullpen has remained somewhat in flux after the organization missed on closer targets Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon. While Blanton doesn’t seem likely to factor directly into the competition for the ninth inning job, he’ll deepen the team’s late-inning corps.
It wasn’t long ago that Blanton seemed like he might be headed for retirement. His last full season as a starter came in 2013, when he scuffled to a 6.04 ERA with the Angels, and he sat out the following campaign. But the righty reemerged with the Royals in 2015, and thrived yet more upon moving to the Pirates that year in a mid-season trade.
The surprising showing of the newly minted reliever led to a $4MM deal with the Dodgers last year. That signing paid big dividends for Los Angeles, as Blanton worked to a 2.48 ERA with 9.0 K/9 against 2.9 BB/9. He carried a sturdy 80-inning workload, allowing just 55 base hits in that span.
It would be unwise to expect Blanton to continue generating a meager .240 batting average on balls put in play against him, but his other peripherals portend continued success. Though he drew far less grounders than usual (32.5% against a career average of 43.9%), Blanton tamped down the long balls that plagued him in the second half of his time working from the rotation. And he generated swinging strikes at an excellent 14.2% clip, representing an increase over his already-strong 2015 numbers (13.0%).
Beyond the ability he displayed, Blanton showed he’s still capable of carrying a heavy burden for a reliever while retaining his arm speed deep into his career. He averaged a career-best 91 mph with his fastball last year, with his slider and curve also rating as above-average offerings. While his change wasn’t as productive in 2016, Blanton’s starter’s arsenal also gives him some added flexibility. Though he surrendered free passes more frequently to the 111 lefty batters he faced than the 204 righties that came to the plate against him, Blanton held southpaw hitters to an anemic .186/.288/.258 batting line.
That’s not to say that Blanton comes without questions. He did falter in the NLCS, though he was aces for the Dodgers in their thrilling divisional series against the Nats, when he provided five scoreless innings over which he allowed just a single base knock and compiled five strikeouts against one walk. Of greater concern is his ability to continue succeeding while giving up a fair amount of hard contact (34.3%) while permitting many more flyballs (45.6%) than grounders (32.5%). And he did that while generating far fewer harmless infield pop-ups than he had in 2015 (15.2% versus 5.3%). If a few more of those flies end up in the seats — which is always possible when Nats Park heats up over the summer — then there could be some regression in store.
Regardless, it’s a solid value for the Nationals, who will add Blanton to a righty setup mix that also includes Blake Treinen, Shawn Kelley, and youngster Koda Glover. One of those three seems likely to take the closer’s job, though lefty Sammy Solis could also enter that discussion. Veteran right-handers Joe Nathan and Matt Albers now seemingly face taller odds in their bids to crack the Opening Day roster. It’s still tempting to wonder whether the organization will pursue an experienced closer before camp breaks, though the addition of Blanton likely draws down the available resources and reduces the likelihood of another significant move.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.