- The Nationals had hope that ace Max Scherzer would come off the injured list this weekend, but that isn’t going to happen, Eddie Matz of ESPN.com reports. Scherzer, shelved since July 25 with a mild rhomboid strain, still has to build his arm up more before he slots back into Washington’s rotation. He threw a 60-pitch simulated game this past Tuesday and will aim for “75, 80 pitches” on Saturday, according to manager Dave Martinez. If that goes well, it seems quite possible Scherzer will come off the IL sometime next week. The three-time Cy Young winner’s injury issues have limited him to just two starts since the beginning of July.
Sean Doolittle is on pace to finish just enough games to trigger the clause in his contract that turns the Nationals’ $6.5MM club option into a mutual option, and the reliever spoke to Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post about his future this week. “I mean, you play this game for a really long time, and any time you have even a little control over your fate, over the direction your career goes, that’s something that we all hope to have,” said the Washington closer.
It’s a critical clause for the Nationals, as the club has had perennial issues with its bullpen over the past few seasons. Doolittle himself was a midseason upgrade on the trade market and has emerged as Washington’s most reliable reliever since being acquired in 2017. He’ll need to finish 17 of the club’s final 42 games to get there, but he’s already finished 48 of 120, making that a distinct possibility. If his option converts to a mutual option, it’s quite likely that the 32-year-old will enter free agency, as he should be able to top a year and $6.5MM easily on the open market. Doolittle has a 2.65 ERA with 10.7 K/9, 1.9 BB/9 and 73 saves in 125 2/3 innings as a National.
Ryan Zimmerman is in the final guaranteed year of his contract, and the longtime Nationals staple tells MLB.com’s Bill Ladson that he has yet to speak to GM Mike Rizzo or team ownership about what he hopes will be a continued relationship in 2020 and beyond. The Nats hold an $18MM club option ($2MM buyout) on Zimmerman for next season that is highly unlikely to be exercised, given the veteran’s injuries and declining production in recent years. Zimmerman is very eager to finish his career with the only franchise he has ever known, and reiterated that he is open to playing the rest of his career by ear, even returning just in a platoon situation at first base.
“I’m willing to come back [to Washington] and do one year, year by year, for a lot less money,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t think the money matters to me anymore. I just want to continue to play baseball and keep playing baseball in D.C. I’m lucky that my kids are here. My family is here.” If the Nats didn’t want to keep Zimmerman on the roster, he stopped short of saying he’d retire, though “it would be a tough decision to leave my family and not be around” while playing in another city.
- Nationals ace Max Scherzer came out of a 32-pitch sim game Tuesday feeling “really good,” Mark Zuckerman of MASNsports.com relays. If all goes well over the next few days, Scherzer could throw a bullpen session Thursday and then either make a rehab start or return to the Nationals’ rotation Sunday. The three-time Cy Young winner has started just twice for the team over the past month and a half – his most recent outing came on July 25 – because of back problems. Should he return this weekend, he’d be on a limited pitch count, according to manager Dave Martinez.
TUESDAY: Holland has signed. He will begin with Double-A Harrisburg, Todd Dybas of NBC Sports Washington tweets.
MONDAY: The Nationals have agreed to a minor-league contract with veteran reliever Greg Holland, according to Jon Heyman of MLB Network (via Twitter). MLB.com’s Jamal Collier reported earlier today on Twitter that the sides were moving towards a deal.
Holland, a 33-year-old righty, was released recently by the Diamondbacks. He’ll continue to be paid the balance of his $3.25MM salary by the Arizona organization, though the D.C. org will pay the tab for the league minimum rate for whatever time Holland spends in a big-league uniform down the stretch.
When Holland joined the Nats late in the 2018 campaign, he was looking to bounce back from a brutal opening to the season. This time around, he had turned in good results for a lengthy stretch before things soured. But he’s also dealing with a different sort of problem: a marked, mid-season decline in velocity and swinging-strike rate on his fastball.
On the positive side, Holland has seemingly been good at limiting contact. Statcast credits him with a .292 xwOBA-against and excellent .192 xBA-against, though he is allowing more hard contact (36.8%) and a greater exit velocity (89.3 mph) than ever before. Keeping opponents from getting aboard by way of base knocks is particularly important for Holland since his walk rate is over 15% for the second consecutive year.
It remains to be seen whether and when Holland will contribute to the Nats’ pen. But the club has good cause to bring him aboard and hope for the best. The D.C. relief corps is as shaky as any such unit on a contending roster. Having already cycled through quite a few bullpen arms, including no shortage of recognizable veterans, the Nationals have little choice but to keep giving looks to the hurlers of Holland’s ilk that happen to come available.
- Finally, the Nationals appear optimistic on the health outlooks of two superstars. The club believes it has dodged a bullet with outfielder Juan Soto, as Britt Ghiroli of The Athletic was among those to cover (Twitter links). Soto was able to participate in baseball activities yesterday after initially fearing he had suffered a significant ankle injury in his latest contest. Meanwhile, ace Max Scherzer continues to make steady progress in his quest to move past a back issue. He remains slated for a sim game and is said to be feeling well, but the team still isn’t confident of a particular timeline. ***Update: Soto is in today’s lineup, while Scherzer threw his sim game as scheduled.
If a deal does come together, it’ll be the second straight summer in which the Nationals and Holland have struck an agreement. The two sides reached an accord last August, which came a little after two weeks under the Cardinals released him. Holland went on to throw 21 1/3 innings of near-perfect ball as a member of the Nationals, with whom he allowed two earned runs on nine hits and 10 walks with 25 strikeouts. It was especially surprising considering Holland struggled so much with the Cardinals before they released him.
Holland rebuilt his stock in Washington late last season, but he reverted to his uglier form this season after signing a $3.25MM guarantee with the Diamondbacks last winter. He notched a 4.54 ERA/4.76 FIP with 10.35 K/9 against 6.06 BB/9 in 35 2/3 innings before the D-backs released him this past weekend. Holland will now try to catch back on in Washington, whose bullpen has been atrocious throughout the season.
With over two-thirds of the 2019 season in the books, let’s check in to see how seven players are progressing towards possible vesting options in their contracts. For those unfamiliar with the term, a vesting option is an agreed-upon threshold within a player’s contract (usually based on health and/or playing time) that, if achieved, allows the player to alter the terms of the contract for the next season, and perhaps beyond in some cases.
Some vesting options aren’t reported, so it could be that more players beyond this septet could also be playing towards gaining more guaranteed money or contractual freedom for the 2020 season. For now, let’s examine just these seven names…
Yonder Alonso, Rockies: Under the terms of the two-year, $16MM deal Alonso signed with the Indians in the 2017-18 offseason, his $9MM club option (with a $1MM buyout) for 2020 becomes guaranteed if the first baseman first passes a physical, and then hit plate-appearance benchmarks. Unfortunately for Alonso, he has only 287 PA this season, so he’s on pace to fall well short of reaching either 550 PA in 2019 or 1100 total PA in 2018-19 — either of which would’ve caused his option to vest.
Andrew Cashner, Red Sox: Having struggled through six starts since coming to Boston in a trade from the Orioles, the Sox have a legitimate performance-related reason for moving Cashner out of their rotation. There would also be a financial motive involved, as Cashner’s $10MM club option for 2020 would become guaranteed if he amasses 340 total innings in 2018-19. After today’s abbreviated outing against the Angels, Cashner now has 279 2/3 IP over the last two seasons, putting him within distant range of causing his option to vest if he keeps receiving starts. (Incidentally, the option could also vest into a player option if Cashner hits the 360-inning threshold.)
Sean Doolittle, Nationals: The closer finished his league-high 47th game of the season today, giving him 82 games finished since the start of the 2018 season. Should Doolittle reach 100 games finished, the Nationals’ $6.5MM club option ($500K buyout) on Doolittle for 2020 would vest into a mutual option, giving him the opportunity to opt out of his contract and enter into free agency. This is definitely one to watch down the stretch, since with the Nats in a postseason race and the rest of their bullpen struggling, D.C. won’t hesitate to use their closer for every save situation possible. Manager Davey Martinez has used Doolittle in a traditional late-game role, so shifting him into high-leverage situations outside of the ninth inning to cut down on his games-finished numbers would be a risky (and controversial) tactic, to say the least.
Chris Iannetta, Rockies: With 110 starts at catcher since the beginning of the 2018 season, Iannetta won’t reach the 220 catching starts he needed to convert the Rockies’ $4.25MM club option on his services for 2020 into a guarantee.
Wade LeBlanc, Mariners: The unique extension signed by LeBlanc in July 2018 carried three $5MM club option years for 2020-22 that can all vest into guarantees. That 2020 option turns into guaranteed money if LeBlanc throws 160 innings in 2019 and doesn’t have a left arm injury at season’s end. A month-long IL stint due to an oblique strain earlier this season almost certainly ended LeBlanc’s chance at the 160-inning plateau, as he has only 98 IP thus far. While he’s still eating a good share of innings as a “bulk pitcher” behind an opener in most outings, it seems likely that LeBlanc won’t reach his vesting threshold.
Brandon Morrow, Cubs: Morrow’s two-year, $21MM deal carried a 2020 vesting option worth $12MM, or a $3MM buyout. It wasn’t actually known what the terms were of this option, though since injuries have kept Morrow from pitching since July 15, 2018, it’s safe to assume the option won’t vest, and Morrow will be a free agent this winter.
Oliver Perez, Indians: The veteran southpaw appeared in his 49th game of the season today, so barring injury, he’s a lock to hit the 55 appearances required to guarantee his $2.75MM club option for 2020. He also seems like a pretty safe bet to lock in even more money, as that option will be guaranteed at $3MM if Perez pitches in 60 games. The Tribe likely won’t at all mind having Perez back for another season, as the reliever continues to dominate left-handed batters.
Nationals outfielder Juan Soto left Sunday’s matchup with the Mets in the seventh inning after suffering an apparent ankle injury while rounding third base. Following the Nats’ win, Sam Fortier of the Washington Post reports that Soto suffered a mild ankle sprain and that X-rays came back negative. Soto has been listed as day-to-day.
Needless to say, Sunday’s victory was a bittersweet one after a nerve-wracking scene saw the team’s star 20-year-old roll his ankle while rounding third. However, it appears that the Nationals and their fans can breathe a tentative sigh of relief; the injury won’t require an IL stint and Soto likely won’t miss an expended period. In fact, Alex Chappell of MASN adds that Soto suggested that he may be able to return to the lineup as early as tomorrow. Of course, it seems likely that the Nationals will be careful not to rush their phenom back to action, but it’s a promising sign that Soto anticipates a hasty return.
Soto has entered rarefied air with prodigious offensive success at such an advanced age, displaying elite plate discipline and power that has fueled a .944 OPS this season, solidifying himself as a cornerstone of the playoff-hopeful Nationals lineup. Should he miss a game or two over the next few days, the Nationals are well-equipped with Gerardo Parra on tap to step into the lineup. Parra, though surely an offensive downgrade from the unparalleled Soto, has enjoyed a successful Nats tenure, posting a solid .845 OPS in 58 games as the club’s reserve outfielder.
11:29 am: Scherzer will throw a simulated game Tuesday, at which point the Nationals will reevaluate his timetable, Kerr adds.
10:21 am: It seems Scherzer came out of the bullpen session unscathed. Asked today by reporters how he’s feeling, Scherzer gave a thumbs up, tweets Byron Kerr of MASN, surely an encouraging sign for Nats’ fans.
8:37 am: The Nationals are clinging to a half-game lead in the NL Wild Card entering Sunday’s series finale against the charging Mets. Their playoff odds, per Fangraphs, sit at a strong 67.8%, with a small but non-zero chance they overcome their current 6.5 game deficit in the NL East. Since placing their ace Max Scherzer on the injured list July 29, though, the club has gone just 5-6 against a slew of teams in a similar position to them in the standings. Fortunately, the 35 year-old took something of a step forward in his recovery yesterday, as Sam Fortier of the Washington Post reports.
Scherzer tossed a 36-pitch bullpen session without discomfort Saturday, his first mound work since he hit the shelf. Both the pitcher and manager Dave Martinez were moderately encouraged with the session, although Scherzer predictably expressed some frustration with missing time at all.
That’s not to say we’ll see Scherzer on the mound immediately, though. The club still hasn’t put forth a timetable for his return, and Martinez told Fortier the club plans to be “very cautious” with the hurler to keep him healthy for the stretch run. As Fortier adds on Twitter, that may eventually mean Scherzer needs to make a minor-league rehab start as a tune-up before returning to an MLB mound. It seems the biggest test of the weekend will actually be how Scherzer feels today, as his previous injury popped up the day after his start, not while he was on the mound.
It’s easy to understand why Washington wants to be patient with its ace, even amidst the heat of a pennant race. For one, it’s arguable the club and player have already paid the price for impatience. Scherzer initially hit the IL with a mid-back strain July 13, returned just twelve days later, then went back on the shelf after one start with the current upper back problem. Whether Scherzer’s second injury was a foreseeable consequence of his quick return from the first is anyone’s guess, but his having multiple IL stints in a short period of time no doubt plays a role in the organization’s cautious approach this go-round.
Additionally, Scherzer is among the most important pieces in the organization. While he’s already more than made good on the club’s sizable free agent investment, he’s under contract for $30 million over the next two seasons (with another $105 million in deferred money to be paid through 2028), as Kiley McDaniel of Fangraphs recently explained. Anticipating another two years of stellar production, the club wants to make sure Scherzer’s at his best before he returns to action.
Despite his age, Scherzer continued to dazzle in 2019 pre-injury. His 2.41 ERA ranks third leaguewide (minimum 100 innings), while his combination of strikeouts (35.3%) and walks (4.7%) is the best in MLB. Scherzer’s been among the best pitchers of this decade, having accrued 200+ innings with an ERA of 3.15 or below every year between 2013 and 2018. While the injuries will keep him from that 200 inning mark this season, he remains dominant as ever on a rate basis, making his health situation one of the most noteworthy around the league as we approach the season’s stretch run.