Nationals’ Kyle Finnegan, Tanner Rainey could be trade deadline chips

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Heading into this season, the Washington Nationals’ potential trade deadline chips were fairly clear. They were Nelson Cruz, Josh Bell, César Hernández, Steve Cishek and Sean Doolittle, depending on who might be healthy and productive enough by early August. In the first two months of the year, reliever Carl Edwards Jr., signed to a minor league deal over the winter, has proved capable of perhaps landing a low-end prospect. General Manager Mike Rizzo generally hinted at this group in a radio interview with 106.7 the Fan last week.

“We still have a long ways to figure that out,” Rizzo said when asked whether the last-place Nationals would be buyers or sellers. “But I would assume that if we’re playing at the rate we’re playing, we’ll probably be careful sellers and make sure that we maximize the players at least with expiring contracts. I don’t think that would come as a shock to anybody at the radio station right now.”

Pay close attention to Rizzo’s use of “at least.” As he suggested, dangling Cruz, Bell, Cishek, Hernández or Edwards would surprise no one. The first four are either on one-year contracts or in their final season of team control. Edwards, 30, is under control through 2023 and has not pitched a full season’s workload since 2018. Doolittle, on the other hand, remains on the 60-day injured list with a sprained elbow, complicating what once seemed like a strong case to be moved this summer. But what was implied by “at least,” however subtle it was, when it comes to who else may be on the block?

Two possibilities are Tanner Rainey and Kyle Finnegan — or at least they should be considered as such.

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The main case against dealing Rainey or Finnegan is that both are under team control through 2025. But that also means they are likely to net a better return than any players listed above, helping the Nationals build a sustainable roster and system. If nothing else, the pros and cons should be weighed because most contenders would take a hard look at a controllable reliever for the stretch run and beyond. It wasn’t too long ago that Rizzo flipped top prospect Jesús Luzardo — along with Blake Treinen and Sheldon Neuse — to the Oakland Athletics for multiple years of Doolittle and Ryan Madson.

Since reliever performance is volatile, something Rizzo often talks about, there’s a limited chance both Rainey and Finnegan are integral parts of the bullpen for Washington’s next competitive team. And that the Nationals’ bullpen has been somewhat decent — yes, ranked 26th in ERA going into Tuesday’s games but weighed down by Austin Voth’s crooked numbers before he was let go recently — shows how low-key trades, one-year deals and smart bargain-bin adds can set up a club for success.

Rainey has been the Nationals’ up-and-down closer in 2022, entering the week with seven saves in 10 attempts. And though his velocity has not restored to the high 90s, his fastball has averaged 96 mph and his slider is a decidedly plus pitch. It shows in the 29-year-old’s 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Rainey was Super Two arbitration-eligible this past offseason and is making $860,000.

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Finnegan, 30, has mostly pitched in front of Rainey, serving as Manager Dave Martinez’s go-to in high-leverage jams. Like Rainey, he pairs a 96-mph fastball with a slider. Finnegan has lightly mixed in a splitter, too, giving him a decoy pitch against lefties. Eighteen of his 26 appearances have been scoreless, leading to a 3.70 ERA in 24⅓ innings. He has struck out 10.7 batters per nine, outpacing Rainey by a hair. Finnegan is expected to be arbitration-eligible for the first time next offseason.

The Nationals realistically will shop Cishek and Edwards out of their bullpen. If Victor Arano recovers quickly from left knee inflammation, he could join the list. Otherwise, dealing Rainey, Finnegan or both might signal a longer rebuild than Rizzo has publicly described. In reality, though, it could be savvy to sell high on players who are ready to pitch meaningful innings now — and are likely to reach midsummer with limited wear on their arms because the Nationals have held so few late-inning leads.

That’s no small thing. And neither, for that matter, are the decisions Rizzo has to make soon.

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