A minor league free agent, a pitcher who spent seven years with the Oakland Athletics and never cracked the majors, Kyle Finnegan thought his career might be over in the fall of 2019. He was 28. The season before, he posted a 2.31 ERA and struck out 12.8 batters per nine innings, leaving him wondering how many shutdown outings it would take to earn a chance.
But once Finnegan became available, his agent, Joe Gaza, had a much different feeling. A bunch of teams called. Some offered significantly more than the standard salaries for minor league deals. So Gaza called Finnegan, now 31, with a bit of tough-to-parse advice.
“The hardest part for him was just having the patience and continually turning down a lot of aggressive minor league contracts,” Gaza said. “Those minor league opportunities, from a monthly salary perspective, it’s a lot more money than he was used to making. So for him, just leaning into us and having confidence …
“We’re saying: ‘Hey, just hold tight. I think there’s going to be a major league opportunity for you.’ Because we’re looking at the market that year and I’m like, ‘Man, he’s as good as a lot of the veteran free agents.’ ”
The Washington Nationals agreed. His four-seam fastball, hard with a good amount of horizontal movement, stood out to those analyzing data in the front office. Same with how his slider could pair with heaters at the top of the strike zone. Jay Robertson, one of General Manager Mike Rizzo’s more trusted scouts, watched Finnegan a bunch in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League and liked what he saw. The analytics lined up with traditional scouting, leading the Nationals to jump the line and offer Finnegan a major league contract. It stands as maybe their most savvy move since they won the World Series in 2019.
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Other contenders: flipping Jon Lester for outfielder Lane Thomas two trade deadlines ago; claiming oft-injured reliever Hunter Harvey off waivers last March; signing Kyle Schwarber to a one-year, $10 million deal after he was non-tendered by the Chicago Cubs. (Schwarber hit 16 homers in June 2021, strained his hamstring July 2 and was soon traded for young pitcher Aldo Ramirez as part of the team’s first teardown.)
With Finnegan, though, the Nationals identified high upside in a discarded, unheralded player and have benefited for three seasons and counting. Yes, the initial investment in Finnegan was a tiny, tiny sliver of their post-title payroll. And, yes, this might all look different if the Opening Day roster didn’t expand to 28 because of the pandemic, helping Finnegan make the team and begin his career with 10 consecutive scoreless appearances.
But neither caveat changes the solid process and results. The next winter, the Nationals used the same strategy with lefty reliever Sam Clay, signing him to a major league deal despite Clay having never thrown a pitch in the bigs. Clay threw 49⅓ innings for Washington across two seasons and was designated for assignment last summer. This offseason, the Nationals signed outfielder Stone Garrett — 27 years old, 84 major league plate appearances — to a split contract after he was DFA’d by the Arizona Diamondbacks, showing they wanted to butt ahead of other teams.
Garrett, like Finnegan in 2019, has minor league options remaining, meaning he can swing between the majors and minors without having to pass through waivers. That is important for roster flexibility — and if Garrett catches on in even a remotely similar way to how Finnegan has, the Nationals will be thrilled. But Finnegan has been in the Nationals’ bullpen since he debuted in July 2020, leaving his options untouched. That’s why, earlier this month, he was first-time arbitration-eligible with exactly three years of major league service.
“I was talking to my wife and we were just joking because she comes to the game and they hang in the suite and they’re enjoying themselves,” Finnegan, a sixth-round pick out of Texas State in 2013, said in July. “I was like, ‘Remember when you came to visit me in Beloit, Wisconsin — Low A for the Beloit Snappers? That was not that long ago.’ So it’s just … try to remember how far you’ve come. But I definitely keep an internal storage of people that doubted me along the way.”
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In 157⅓ innings for Washington, Finnegan’s adjusted ERA — referred to as ERA+ — is 19 points above the league average. In 2022, he walked considerably fewer batters and finished with a 3.51 ERA in 66 appearances, the second most on the club. He and the team recently agreed on $2.352 million salary for 2023, which could make him its highest-paid reliever.
That’s both a credit to Finnegan and another sign of where the Nationals are in their rebuild. Come July, he could be one of their more intriguing trade candidates, offering a late-inning arm with two full years of team control remaining. But in the meantime, he’s likely to share high-leverage innings with Harvey and Carl Edwards Jr., a veteran who arrived on a minor league deal before outperforming expectations last season.
As currently constructed, the Nationals’ roster is full of fringe players in search of opportunity. That was Kyle Finnegan once, too. And while it may be a stretch to call him a best-case outcome, Finnegan does represent an organizational win.
“Sometimes I almost feel like I’m playing with house money,” he said. “I feel fearless when I’m out there. What’s the worst that can happen?”