The Nationals have designated left-hander Sam Clay for assignment, per a team announcement. His spot on the 26-man and 40-man roster will go to righty Mason Thompson, who has been reinstated from the 60-day injured list. Washington also optioned catcher Riley Adams to Triple-A Rochester and recalled fellow backstop Tres Barrera in his place.
Clay, 29, signed a big league deal with the Nats in the 2020-21 offseason despite never having pitched at the Major League level. The former Twins fourth-rounder had posted solid numbers between Double-A and Triple-A in 2019 before the canceled 2020 minor league season, with his enormous 71.2% ground-ball rate likely holding particular appeal for the Nats.
Unfortunately, things haven’t panned out as the Nationals or Clay himself hoped upon signing that deal. He made his big league debut in 2021 when he tossed 45 innings out of Davey Martinez’s bullpen, but Clay’s 5.60 ERA was one of many contributing factors to a disastrous Nationals season. Clay posted an excellent 60.1% grounder rate last year but also turned in a well below-average 15.9% strikeout rate and a fairly bloated 10.3% walk rate.
So far in 2022, things haven’t gone much better. While Clay has a solid 3.10 ERA, 21.7% strikeout rate, 7.6% walk rate and 64.5% ground-ball rate in 20 1/3 Triple-A frames, he’s again been ineffective against big leaguers. He’s pitched 4 1/3 innings for the Nats this season, yielding five runs on three hits and three walks as well as four hit batsmen in that time. That shaky performance has inflated his career ERA in the Majors to 6.02.
Clay has a decent track record in the upper minors, one minor league option remaining beyond this season, and a clear ability to induce grounders — all of which could conceivably hold some appeal to another club with different ideas about how to maximize his results. The Nats will have a week to trade him, pass him through outright waivers or release him.
Replacing Clay on the roster will be the 24-year-old Thompson — a hard-throwing, 6’7″ righty who came to the Nats last summer in the deadline deal that shipped reliever Daniel Hudson to the Padres. Thompson, a third-round pick by San Diego back in 2016, pitched just one scoreless inning this season before landing on the injured list with a biceps strain that has kept him out since.
He made his MLB debut last season, tossing 24 2/3 innings between the Padres and Nats. In that time, Thompson logged a 4.01 ERA with more questionable secondary marks, including a 19% strikeout rate and 12.4% walk rate. He sat at 96.3 mph with his sinker and kept 50% of the balls in play against him on the ground, however, and his slider is considered an above-average offering as well.
As for the swap behind the dish, Adams will head to Rochester and presumably receive the regular playing time that has eluded him behind fellow rookie Keibert Ruiz this season. The 26-year-old has appeared in 27 games and tallied just 88 plate appearances so far this season, batting .192/.284/.321 along the way. Adams has plenty of raw power and consistently high walk rates, but he only played in a total of 36 Triple-A games before being called to the Majors. The Nats apparently feel it’d be better for his development to get more consistent looks in Rochester than playing sparsely behind Ruiz.
The 27-year-old Barrera, meanwhile, was hitting .256/.342/.439 in Triple-A and has long projected as a possible backup catcher. The Nats selected him in the sixth round back in 2016, and he’ll now get another look in the big leagues. He appeared in 30 games last season and hit .264/.374/.385 through 107 plate appearances.