On May 4, fan favorite lefty Sean Doolittle was moved from the 10-day injured list to the 60-day injured list in order to make room on the 40-man roster for Cory Abbott, a right-handed pitcher off waivers from the Giants. Doolittle originally went on the 10-day IL on April 20 with a left elbow sprain, and the 60-day IL move ensures that he won’t be back until mid-June—60 days from April 20 is Sunday, June 19, the last day of a four-game series against the Phillies at home.
According to Mark Zuckerman, Doolittle received a PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injection in his elbow last week, which prevents him from throwing for six weeks. Six weeks from April 28 is June 9, meaning he won’t be able to throw at all until then, no building back his arm. And while noted women’s rights advocate Doolittle has made sure to keep busy by protesting at the Supreme Court, his move to the 60-day IL and his injury history have led to questions about the true timetable for his return and what we can expect.
Doolittle’s Dazzling Debut
Sean Doolittle, by all metrics, had been having a fabulous return to Washington up until this point. Though he only appeared in six games and pitched 5.1 innings, he was by far our most effective reliever in all of them, allowing only 1 hit and tallying up 6 strikeouts against 17 batters faced, with a FIP of 0.85. The Nationals had high hopes for his season, as it looked like he could be finally back to his old self after a turbulent 2020 and 2021. I’ll be the first to admit that I did not believe the Doolittle major league signing was a good one—his prior seasons were difficult, and he bounced around in 2021 between the Reds and the Mariners for a total season ERA of 4.53. But in his few appearances, he demonstrated that the velocity had returned to his fastball, and he also relied on his curveball more frequently than he had in prior years. Doolittle’s season looked bright.
No Stranger to Injury
Of course, because the Nationals aren’t allowed to have a good thing going for too long, Doolittle was placed on the injured list on April 20 after feeling a twinge in his arm during the Pittsburgh series that slowly turned into sharper pain against Arizona the next week. An MRI revealed an elbow sprain, and it was suggested that he rest for ten days to see how it felt before considering other options, including surgery. Now, well over ten days since that initial MRI, he’s had a PRP injection rather than anything more serious, with the hope that that may be enough to get him throwing sooner rather than later.
Doolittle, as we all know well, is no stranger to injury. In his 2018 All-Star year, he missed some time due to a pinched nerve. In 2019, he missed some additional time due to knee issues. And in 2020, he missed two separate stretches with right knee issues and oblique issues. While some of those issues may be due in part to overuse by Davey of the bullpen—questions about his bullpen management and his taxing of arms have plagued him both before and after the World Series run—they have each placed difficulty on an already strained pitching staff, regardless of who caused them. Although his current elbow injury is a new one rather than something recurring, his injury history is still cause for concern.
No Trade Ahead
Due to Doolittle’s few dazzling appearances, there were some (perhaps far too optimistic) hopes that he could be a possible trade candidate at the deadline for a contending team. After all, the Nationals are still very firmly in rebuilding mode and are widely expected to trade away top players not named Juan Soto for prospects. But with star trade piece Nelson Cruz off to an incredibly underwhelming 2022 (a batting average of .143, an OBP of .233, and a SLG of .209 for an OPS of .442—yikes) and with Josh Bell quickly becoming one of the only watchable parts of this team (please don’t trade him, I need the book club), Doolittle looked like someone who could be a potential asset to a team in need and bring back the prospects that Cruz, at the moment, cannot.
Alas, his potential June 19 return date doesn’t bring high hopes with it. I am not fully optimistic he’ll be ready by then to begin with, and such a late start doesn’t bode well for the August 2 trade deadline. Further, it’s unclear whether he will be the pitcher we saw at the beginning of this season or the pitcher we saw in 2021. What if the elbow strain was caused by his increased use of the curveball? What if the velocity uptick we encouragingly saw in April is not sustainable? There are a host of questions to work through still, and if I had to guess, I’d say we won’t see him again until late June. By then, I think he may be closer to his old self—still one of the better parts of the bullpen, given the state of it, and still someone we’ll look forward to seeing, but not someone we can expect to give us shutout innings every day (especially not if Davey isn’t careful).
Patching Up the Holes
As the preeminent lefty reliever on the team, Doolittle’s spot needed to be filled quickly. On April 20, that spot was filled by left-handers Sam Clay and Francisco Pérez, both of whom are no longer on the active roster. After burning through only four innings in five games played, Clay returned to Rochester on May 2 with an ERA of 11.25. Pérez, meanwhile, had a 2.08 ERA in 4.1 IP across 5 games, and returned to Rochester on the same day as Clay. The Nationals’ only current active lefty reliever is Josh Rogers, shifted into the bullpen from the rotation after a few difficult starts. Unfortunately, it has not all been smooth-sailing for him—just yesterday, for example, in 1.2 IP against 6 batters, he gave up a solo home run and tallied only three strikeouts to bring his ERA up to 4.50.
The Nationals do not have a long-term solution to filling Doolittle’s spot, and it shows. We’re staring at a game of musical chairs until late June, with no guarantee of who might come next and what new difficulties they may bring. We can only hope that Doolittle heals as quickly as possible, with no complications, to retake his spot and continue the tear he was on. We need something to cheer for, sooner rather than later.
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