The Nationals have reached an agreement with reliever Sean Doolittle, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post first reported the presence of Doolittle’s locker and contact between the two sides. He notes the contract is a Major League deal. Jon Heyman of the MLB Network reports (Twitter link) he’ll be guaranteed $1.5MM with an additional $2.1MM attainable in incentives.
Doolittle, 35, will return for a fifth season with the Nats after splitting the 2021 season between the Reds and the Mariners. The two-time All-Star saved 75 games and pitched to a 3.03 ERA with a 28.2% strikeout rate and a 5.7% walk rate with Washington through 142 2/3 innings after coming over from the A’s at the 2017 trade deadline.
The past two seasons haven’t been the best for Doolittle, who’s logged a combined 4.71 ERA through 57 1/3 innings during that time. However, after seeing his average fastball drop to a career-worst 90.9 mph in 2020, Doolittle rebounded to 93.3 mph in that regard in 2021 — including a 93.9 mph average late in the season after being claimed off waivers by the Mariners. Last year’s 12% swinging-strike rate and 33.6% opponents’ chase rate also marked bouncebacks, to an extent.
At his best, Doolittle has overpowered both left-handed and right-handed opponents, but he’s developed more of a platoon split in recent seasons. It was particularly pronounced in ’21, when lefties mustered just a .222/.276/.389 batting line but righties rocked him at a .288/.390/.510 pace. It’s unlikely he’ll bounce all the way back to his 2018 levels, when Doolittle was one of the best relievers on the planet, but even a return to his 2019 form would be a welcome addition to a threadbare Nationals bullpen that was lacking in stable contributors but has begun to add some veteran pieces.
Doolittle joins sidearming veteran Steve Cishek as the second experienced addition for the Nats in the past day. That pair will join Kyle Finnegan, Tanner Rainey and Will Harris in the late innings. Rainey is in need of a rebound himself, however, after pitching to a grisly 7.39 ERA in 31 2/3 innings in 2021. Harris, meanwhile, missed time with a series of blood clots early in 2021 before undergoing thoracic outlet surgery on Memorial Day weekend last year, making him something of a question mark himself.
It’s been an active few days for a Nationals club that has begun to add some short-term veterans. The Nats tore down much of the roster at the 2021 trade deadline, dealing Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Daniel Hudson, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison, Brad Hand and Jon Lester in rare fire sale for GM Mike Rizzo. However, Rizzo pushed back against the idea of a lengthy rebuild in the days after the deadline and early in the offseason. The recent signings of Doolittle, Cishek, and particularly Nelson Cruz suggest that Rizzo & Co. will continue to add some veteran pieces to round out the 2022 roster.
If things break right and they get strong rebounds from key starters like Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, the Nats could be more competitive than many onlookers expect. If not, a series of short-term veteran additions will help to mentor some younger Nats before becoming trade fodder for a second straight deadline season.