Nationals Add Brad, Land Hand

One of the early surprises of the offseason was Cleveland opting to pay Brad Hand a $1 million buyout rather than spend $10 million to pick up his option for the 2021 season. Perhaps even more of a surprise was that Hand cleared waivers, which meant every other team in baseball opted not to commit $10 million despite him putting up his fifth straight one-plus win season even in a shortened slate of games. While Hand was likely seeking more than a one-year deal in free agency given his performance (and both the crowd and I predicted as much), he still did better than the option, getting a $10.5 million deal with the Nationals as first reported by Jon Heyman and Jeff Passan.

Including the buyout, Hand will receive $11.5 million this year, or $1.5 million more than he would have if Cleveland had simply retained his services. Eric Longenhagen wrote his profile in the Top-50 Free Agents piece, noting both the positives and negatives for the lefty:

His velocity fell for the second consecutive year (it trended up throughout the season) but Hand still struck out more than 30% of opposing hitters for the fifth straight season and had a career-best 2.05 ERA and 1.37 FIP. He’s a funky, low-slot lefty who can throw his trademark curveball for strikes whenever he wants and consistently locate it just off the plate to his glove side for swings and misses.

Aside from some elbow soreness that sidelined him late in 2019 (and perhaps limited his workload throughout that season), Hand has also been remarkably durable for a reliever, pitching in excess of 70 innings every year from 2014 to 2018, some of those in a swingman role. His lower arm slot gives Hand rather pronounced platoon splits, which means he may not be universally deployable in high-leverage situations, but his curveball quality and his ability to execute it consistently should still enable him to be a second or third bullpen banana for the next several years, even if his velocity keeps gradually sliding.

Hand got incredible results last season by both ERA and FIP, but that decreased velocity and those platoon splits are slight causes for worry. The latter might be of particular concern given that he is set to take over as the Nationals’ closer; securing a game’s final three outs means not getting to choose which part of the lineup to face. Hand’s splits don’t make him unusable against right-handed batters, though. He’s just great against lefties, with a 1.95 FIP and .229 wOBA against since the start of 2018, and merely above-average against righties, with a 3.17 FIP and .302 wOBA over the same span.

His fantastic 2020 isn’t likely to be repeated, as Hand probably won’t go another season without giving up a homer, and it might have been slightly fluky given the sample size, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t deserving of his results. His strikeout and walk rates were very good. While he gave up a lot of fly balls, more than two-thirds didn’t even travel 320 feet (just one went over 370 feet), and the majority were hit at high launch angles with damage unlikely. Even looking at xwOBA, his .235 mark was one of the best in baseball. Hand’s results were not undeserved.

As for the decline in velocity, Hand has compensated by throwing his four-seamer less often, using his sinker occasionally, and going with that low-80s slider/curve more than half the time. But while he did achieve a comparable strikeout rate in 2020 as he did in past years, his whiff rate dropped a bit, and batters made more contact against him than in previous seasons. Hand’s velocity went up toward the end of the season, though, leading to more whiffs and more swings at more pitches out of the strike zone. If he can keep his fastball closer to the 92 mph and above it was at in September instead of the 91 mph he was working with at the beginning of the year, it could portend good things.

Whether Hand is more suited to setup work or closing is a somewhat minor debate: He is a good reliever, and the Nationals’ bullpen history of late hasn’t been stellar. Even during the 2019 World Series, they relied mostly on Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, and starter Patrick Corbin late in games and expected their starters to pitch deep to get to those late innings. It’s possible the Nationals will be a bit better next year. Adding Hand certainly helps, but Wander Suero, Kyle Finnegan, and Tanner Rainey are all coming off solid seasons. A Hudson return to form or Erick Fedde moving permanently to the bullpen could further bolster their relief corps.

The Nationals have attempted to fill in some of their holes this offseason with Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Lester, and now Hand. While the moves certainly help, the roster is still very top-heavy. They have three of the top 25 starters in the game by projections in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Corbin, the third-best projected position player in Juan Soto, and another top-20 player in Trea Turner. But after that quintet of stars, Schwarber is the only other player projected above two wins. They can hope for more from Bell and cross their fingers that Carter Kieboom takes a big leap forward, but they don’t have much coming from second base or catcher even if those two play well. Despite a rotation and two stars that put them in win-now mode, Washington is pretty clearly in the third spot in the division on paper.

The Nationals might not be able to match the Mets offseason, but there are still options out there. J.T. Realmuto is still on the market, and there are multiple second base options who would make Starlin Castro more of a utility player. There have been rumors of a Kris BryantKyle Hendricks to Toronto blockbuster, and there could be a similar fit in Washington. Acquiring Willson Contreras instead of Hendricks would also move the team forward. Going smaller and adding Justin Turner could be an option as well. Tommy La Stella could provide a lefty bat at both second base and third.

The Nationals are about $15 million under the competitive balance tax right now, but they also stayed under the threshold last season, which will minimize any penalties, and have about $70 million coming off the books at the end of the season. Washington doesn’t yet look complete, but there are still plenty of players out there who have the potential to make a solid impact and improve the team’s prospects for this season.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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3 years ago

So now each of the biggest surprise non-tenders or declined options (Hand, Morton, Schwarber) have gotten at least as much money as they would have otherwise.

I think it’s fair to say that while salaries are maybe a bit depressed this offseason, this is a far cry from the free agent armageddon that I (and others) predicted. But I think that the fact that all three of those guys got the same or more money than what they would have gotten otherwise indicates that there are a lot of owners that are surprised how much money players are getting too. Otherwise, Hand would have been claimed, right? I think front offices were also expecting this deep freeze and it just didn’t happen.

This is good news; it means that despite all of the arguments to the contrary, there isn’t “collusion” happening. It’s just a massive game theory situation where too many teams have upset the balance.

Smiling Politelymember
3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I’m not sure that’s a conclusion we can draw, yet. The Yankees, a team with obvious need at starting pitching, have been penny pinching. Every Central Team could sign Any Major Free Agent and earn Favorite status, but none has. If the Mets and TOR spend 90% of the free agent money, I don’t think that’s a good outcome.

3 years ago

The CBT is causing these issues. Eliminate it and players will get paid.