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The Washington Nationals noted in a press release, after signing left-handed reliever Sam Clay to a major league contract earlier this month, that the southpaw, “… led all of Minor League Baseball in ground ball rate (71.3%),” in 2019.

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Selected in the 4th Round of the 2014 MLB Draft out of Georgia Tech, Clay pitched at both Double-A Pensacola and Triple-A Rochester in Minnesota’s system in 2019, and was part of the Twins’ 60-player pool during the 60-game 2020 COVID campaign, but never got a call up to pitch in the majors in seven years with the organization that drafted him.

Clay told reporters in a Zoom call after the Nationals’ deal with the 27-year-old, now-former Twins’ prospect was announced, that his ground ball rate was, “… the third-highest ground ball percentage in all of baseball,” actually, “… behind [Aaron] Bummer and Zach Britton, so it’s something I do very well.”

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“I am a sinker-ball pitcher,” Clay said. “I throw it down in the zone very well, and I get a lot of ground balls.”

He hasn’t always been so sinker heavy, however, as he explained during an interview with SiriusXM MLB Network Radio hosts Steve Phillips and C.J. Nitkowski on Tuesday morning.

It’s all about the ground balls for the newest @Nationals pitcher. pic.twitter.com/jUirFxSGCM

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— MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (@MLBNetworkRadio) November 24, 2020
“The sinker was kind of a recent development,” Clay said. “Within the last — I want to say — three seasons.

“When I came up to Chattanooga, Double-A, in 2017,” he explained, “I had worked with some left-handed pitchers that were up there, and I’ve always had good arm-side movement on my two-seam [fastball], but they showed me a couple of different grips that I could use, and I just kind of messed around with it. I didn’t really use it in 2017, I used it a little bit more in 2018, and 2019 I went full-force, all into it, and the numbers reflected that that was my pitch, and I talked to a bunch of different pitchers, see what they did — I actually watched videos on Zach Britton to see how he threw it because that was kind of the guy that I wanted to emulate, having that big power sinker.”

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Clay, the Nationals also noted, in addition to generating ground balls, has managed to keep the ball in the yard too.

Major League Baseball has informed the league to prepare as if there will not be a universal designated hitter for the 2021 season. This changes nothing for the Washington Nationals.
Apparently having a designated hitter in the National League was short lived. After the sixty game experiment during the pandemic shortened season, the league is moving back to having pitchers wield the lumber in 2021. For how the Washington Nationals approach the offseason, this should have zero affect.

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The Nationals have a lot of holes to fill, and this news shouldn’t change their way of thinking as we now enter the second week of December. With the Sam Clay signing, the Nats have made just one move since free agency opened (yes, they brought back Josh Harrison prior to free agents being able to sign with new teams).

MLB reportedly informs teams to plan for no universal DH in 2021. https://t.co/o1IHZYSUYf pic.twitter.com/hDfHd8pqcE

— theScore (@theScore) December 7, 2020

They still need to address the catching situation. They need a pitcher for the back end of the rotation. They need to figure out what they are going to do at first base, if that means bringing back Ryan Zimmerman or not. They need to find an outfielder who can hit for power. They need to figure out if Carter Kieboom is the third baseman of the future or if they are going to roll the dice on someone else.

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Those are a lot of needs.

My guess is the Nationals were not concerning themselves too much with the idea of having the designated hitter spot to fill, and presumably, now they do not need to.

NEXT: Maikel Franco a cost efficient choice for third base
With news dropping about the DH, nothing should change on the free agency front for the Nationals. Hopefully the market will begin to heat up and certain pieces will begin to fall. With increased movement, and less players for the picking, several of the questions surrounding the Nationals will get answers.

Until that time, nothing to see here, business as usual for the Washington Nationals.

The reliever, “… did not allow a home run in 2019 and has surrendered just one home run in [188 2⁄3] innings pitched (122 games) since the start of the 2017 season,” they wrote.

“In 187 outings across six Minor League seasons, he has allowed just six home runs in [405 1⁄3] innings pitched.”

The MLB Network Radio hosts asked Clay if he remember who the one guy who got him in the last three years was?

“I don’t remember who hit it,” Clay said, “but I do remember that home run. I was pitching in Chattanooga, and I threw — in Chattanooga the right field line is pretty shallow, I was facing a righty, and I jammed him — I felt like I jammed him, he may have gotten all of it and just tattooed it, but just nice, easy, home run to right field, it was not a big deal.”

It was actually Jason Morozowski, a 2015 13th Round pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks, on August 12, 2018, who hit the only home run off Clay since 2017, in Chattanooga’s AT&T Park.

“I like to think I jammed him,” Clay added, when the show’s hosts noted that most pitchers do tend to think that way.

“I like to think I threw that home run, not he hit it,” he sort-of-joked.

Asked why he thought he got a major league deal from the Nationals, the lefty, who was not expecting a big league deal this winter, said he has a skill set that’s in demand these days.

“I have always been a guy that works incredibly hard,” Clay said. “I’m a sinker ball pitcher, and I’ve got a great slider from what people have told me, so I get a lot of ground balls.”

“I do a very, very good job of getting ground balls, and I feel like that’s at a premium right now, especially with the way that the baseball is and how many home runs are getting hit, so the ability to keep the ball on the ground is very, very important.”

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There was never quite a Jefry Rodriguez Narrative in Washington. That would have required him being a fixed part of the Nationals’ plans — not a fringe pitcher who, in November 2018, was traded to the Cleveland Indians in the deal that netted catcher Yan Gomes. But before and after Rodriguez left, there was mixed messaging about whether he was a future starter or reliever.

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And now, at last, it could all get cleared up this spring.

The Nationals have signed Rodriguez to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training, according to two people with knowledge of the agreement. Rodriguez struggled with Cleveland in 2019, missed 2020 with back and shoulder injuries and was non-tendered this month. He battled poor command, too, though it was health that limited him to eight starts and two relief appearances. Then he returned to Washington for an outside chance to make the club.

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But there are additional wrinkles after Ross opted out of playing in 2020. By doing so, he forfeited his salary — also an agreed-upon $1.5 million — and a full year of major league service time. As a result, he will be arbitration eligible for a fourth time after next season. That will delay his ability to become a free agent, giving the Nationals an extra year of team control. Ross was acquired in the 2014 trade that also brought Trea Turner to Washington.

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With Ross’s deal out of the way, the Nationals have two more arbitration-eligible players in Turner and Juan Soto. They happen to be franchise cornerstones. Turner, a 27-year-old shortstop, is in his third year of eligibility and was set to make $7.45 million in 2020 before salaries were prorated. Soto, a 22-year-old phenom, is in line to be Super Two eligible and is due for a big raise on the $629,400 salary assigned to him by the Nationals this past year.

Spencer Kieboom built his life around baseball. Then he quietly walked away.

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Washington can negotiate salaries with either player at any time. But if they don’t agree before 7 p.m. Wednesday — the non-tender deadline — the Nationals will have to officially tender contracts to Turner and Soto. This is one of the bigger formalities of baseball’s offseason. The club is of course interested in retaining its two best hitters. Devising long-term contracts for Turner and Soto comes at different phases of the team’s five-year plan. In the meantime, though, they’ll have to go through the arbitration process and negotiate with a pair of young stars who tore through the pandemic-shortened season.

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That leaves a lot of details to be worked out. Ross’s deal followed the logic that, without playing in 2020, his initial salary for that season was transferrable. It thus makes sense that he was first to settle with the Nationals.

Without Ross this past summer, the club leaned on Austin Voth and Erick Fedde to round out its rotation. Prospects Wil Crowe and Ben Braymer got shots to start, too. But after Voth fumbled an opportunity, and with Fedde serving well in a do-everything role, it’s likely that Ross has the inside track for a rotation spot. He was the last-minute fill-in for Max Scherzer in Game 5 of the World Series in 2019. He was trending in the right direction before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2017. He was solid for parts of 2019, working his sinker-slider combo, and could slot in behind Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and an undetermined fourth starter whenever the season begins.

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The start date, like everything else, is solidly up in the air. So is whether there will be a universal designated hitter and how big the playoff field will be. Ross, on the other hand, knows how much money he’ll make if everything goes as planned. That’s one small box to check off.

Will that really show whether the Nationals view him as a starter or reliever? Maybe not. Nonroster invitees have to impress enough to earn a coveted 40-man roster spot. The Nationals padded their rotation depth by adding Rogelio Armenteros off waivers Dec. 7. They otherwise have Wil Crowe and Ben Braymer after Kyle McGowin, once a depth starter stashed in the minors, was moved to the bullpen in 2020. So Rodriguez could arrive in the spring, throw a bit and be gone by the regular season, off to find another chance. But how he is used in West Palm Beach, Fla., will be telling. With a few backfield workouts, a few scrimmages, the mystery of Jefry Rodriguez should fade.

First, a short history: At the general managers’ meetings in November 2018, The Washington Post asked Mike Rizzo about adding a versatile, multi-inning reliever. Josh Hader had just lit up the playoffs for Milwaukee. It built on what Andrew Miller did for Cleveland in 2016, fitting the trend of shorter starts and more creative bullpen usage. Rizzo entertained the idea.

Well, he sort of did.

“Sure, I’d love that,” he said, sarcastically hinting that pitchers such as Hader and Miller are a rare find. “Who do you have in mind?”

That’s when a reporter suggested Rodriguez.

“Jefry’s certainly got good stuff, multi-innings, rubber arm, can bounce back. I still see him as a real good starting piece for us,” Rizzo said. “To me, the industry, us as an industry, we develop more relievers than starters. I like to get pitchers that have the capacity to start every opportunity to start, keep them stretched out.”

Now fast-forward three weeks, right after Rizzo traded Rodriguez and outfielder Daniel Johnson for Gomes. When asked about dealing Rodriguez, thus thinning the Nationals’ rotation depth, Rizzo took a slight turn.

“It’s one starting candidate we don’t have anymore,” Rizzo said. “We thought Jefry’s primary role on our team in the future was going to be in the bullpen.”

 

At the time, this was either the truth or post-trade spin. Perhaps it was some combination of the two.

But even before Rizzo’s parting comments, it was fair to ask whether Rodriguez could flip to the bullpen. He has a mid-90s fastball and a decent curve, and he hasn’t developed a second off-speed pitch. The Nationals briefly tested him as a reliever in 2019. As they did, Manager Dave Martinez daydreamed — out loud — about Rodriguez becoming Dellin Betances, a four-time all-star then with the New York Yankees. The logic was that, with only a few outs to record, Rodriguez’s velocity could tick up and overpower hitters. It was a big ask.

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BALTIMORE- In August of 2013, the Nationals traded veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to the Oakland A’s for a minor-league pitcher from a college known more for basketball.

Today, nearly seven years later, that pitcher made his Major League debut and is now teammates on the Nationals with Suzuki.

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Dakota Bacus, 29, drafted out of Indiana State by Oakland in 2012, pitched two innings and did not allow a hit or run in the completion of the suspended game against the Orioles.

Mark Scialabba, assistant general manager, player development for the Nationals, has been monitoring Bacus at the alternate site in Fredericksburg. The right-hander from Moline, Illinois made 225 minor-league appearances, with 65 starts, before his first MLB contest.

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“We are very excited for Dakota,” Scialabba wrote to Federal Baseball on Friday night. “He’s grinded his way through the minor leagues for a long time and earned this opportunity.”

“He’s a fearless competitor that showed a great deal of resilience and perseverance throughout his career,” Scialabba added. “Over the last couple of years he’s really focused on how to effectively utilize his strengths and consistently attacks the zone with his sinker, slider, curveball combination.”

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“He looked good. He threw the ball really well. He got some outs for us. It was good to see. He came in and he looked good,” manager Dave Martinez said. “We’ll see how he feels for the second game, but he threw the ball, he threw strikes, which is nice.”

The year prior, Garcia had an issue with surrendering the long ball, even though he finished the season with a WHIP of 0.866.

Sam Clay was signed to a major league contract without having pitched in the majors largely because he is a ground ball pitcher. Last year Garcia had a ground ball rate of 41.7%. There is room in the bullpen for two guys who induce hitters to pound the ball into the ground.

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Injuries in 2020 forced a lot of the younger Nationals pitchers to see action before they normally would have. Acquiring Garcia would mean Seth Romero, Ben Braymer, and Dakota Bacus are not rushed into action before they are ready, should injuries rear their ugly head again.

Garcia is due about $2M in arbitration this season and is a free agent at the end of the year. The Marlins are still budget conscious and will be willing to sell high on Garcia before they lose him next year without getting anything in return.

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Even though the Marlins made the playoffs last year (thanks to the expanded format), they are still a couple years away from seriously contending. They’d be happy to flip Garcia for a guy with more years of team control. Say, Ryne Harper or Austin Voth. Players with big league experience who have struggled some, though have potential and may just need a change of scenery.

Bacus pitched in 46 games last year at Triple-A Fresno out of the bullpen in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League.

His pitching coach there was Brad Holman, now the pitching coordinator in player development for the Nationals.

“It’s a great success story,” Holman told Federal Baseball from Fredericksburg on Friday. “He just goes about his business as a professional. He finally bought into who he is. He learned to pitch with what he’s got.”

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A ninth-round draft pick, Bacus began his pro career in the Arizona League with Oakland in 2012.

After he was traded to the Nationals, he made it to Double-A Harrisburg for the first time in 2015 and he also spent part of 2016-19 in the Eastern League.

Bacus reached Triple-A for the first time last season, and was 5-5 with an ERA of 3.58.

“He worked really hard to be here,” Martinez said Friday. “He threw the ball well. He threw the ball well in Spring Training in March. We liked his stuff. He worked really hard during this whole Fredericksburg deal, and we thought he was ready to come up here and help us. As you can see he threw the ball exceptionally well, we liked what we saw. Hopefully he continues to do that and helps us win games.”

The Orioles won 6-2 to finish the suspended game on Friday. Since it was a home game for the Nationals, the victory gave the Orioles a three-game sweep against the Nats on the road for the first time since 2015.

And despite an injury to Starlin Castro and bullpen woes, Bacus was one of the few bright spots on a damp Friday night in Charm City.

“As you can see, he threw ground balls. But he’s got a good sinker, he’s got a really good slider/curveball, and he uses all his pitches,” Martinez said. “For a guy that came up for the first time, as you can tell, he knows who he is. He shook Yan Gomes off quite a few times to get to the pitch that he wanted to throw, that he felt comfortable throwing, and that’s good to see.”