The end in Washington for one of the greatest comeback stories in baseball history came quietly Saturday afternoon.
The Nationals announced Aaron Barrett has declared free agency after clearing waivers and being assigned to Triple-A on Friday. Paolo Espino and Roenis Elías also declared free agency.
Barrett entering the open market means he will not be part of the Nationals organization for the first time in a decade. He was drafted in the ninth round in 2010 out of the University of Mississippi. Barrett was 22-years old when throwing pitches for the Vermont Lake Monsters of the New York-Penn League to start his career. He’s 32 now, with a rebuilt arm, sterling reputation and broad respect from those who have come across him.
His comeback story is rooted in his return to the majors following Tommy John surgery and a broken right arm in 2015. Barrett kept WD-40 in his locker as a comedic tool, telling anyone who asked that it was there to lubricate all the metal living in his elbow. The Nationals kept him under contract despite his devastating arm injury and years of recovery. When asked why, Mike Rizzo said they believed Barrett was among the best examples an organization could have.
Barrett’s gap between appearances on a major-league mound was more than four years: Aug. 5, 2015 to Sept. 7, 2019. He cried before making it back, cried after he did. In between, Barrett worked and worked and worked. Back to the NYPL in 2018 then to Double-A Harrisburg in 2019 following surgery and extensive rehabilitation. To be pitching professionally at all was a triumph after Barrett broke his arm, an event former pitching coach Paul Menhart will never unsee.
“I almost wanted to throw up,” Menhart said. “It was that disgusting. The sound. The screams and the, “Why me?” that were coming out of his mouth. And then afterward, I had to call his wife to let her know he’s OK and that kind of thing, but I need you to get over here quickly. Broke his arm. There was no easy way to say it but to say it. It was one of the most traumatic experiences I’ve had to witness. I can’t even imagine the pain he was going through when that happened.”
Which is why Barrett was so emotional when summoned in September of 2019. Double-A manager Matt LeCroy told him the news in what became a viral video. LeCroy started by telling Barrett he was an inspiration to him, the coaches, the players. Then he began to cry before informing Barrett he was going back to the major leagues. More tears arrived when Barrett called his wife, who nursed him for two years.
“I was crying obviously, she was balling,” Barrett said at the time. “Makes me emotional just thinking about it. I called her and told her, 'We're going back.’”
His slider wasn’t as sharp and fastball not as lively. Brief major-league appearances in 2019 and 2020 went poorly. However, the results -- outside of Barrett’s personal focus to just become a pitcher and not solely a comeback story -- were long overshadowed by the return. Full use of his arm for everyday activities was once in doubt. Pitching, an unnatural, stress-inducing process, seemed out of the question. Barrett wrecked ligament and bone in his right arm. Yet, he made it back, again pitching for the Nationals before the business of baseball came for him, like it comes for everyone.