The week was certainly an eventful one for the Washington Nationals. The United States won the World Baseball Classic, with Nats pitcher Tanner Roark and second baseman Daniel Murphy contributing to the effort. Outfielder Michael A. Taylor missed a few days of camp to deal with a family situation later revealed to be the death of his father, a tragic event for the Taylor family. On the business side, the Nats made several clarifying cuts to their major league camp roster. Dusty Baker announced Stephen Strasburg as the Opening Day starter, and confirmed they have selected a closer (but are keeping the decision secret for now).
The moves that Nats management has made clarify what was a muddled picture for the last bullpen and bench spots. FanRag Sports journalist Jon Heyman is reporting that the likely choice of closer is rookie Koda Glover, an eighth-round draft pick two years ago who has rocketed through the Washington organization and made his major league debut last year; Glover was also thought to be battling for a spot on the 25-man roster, so if Heyman’s report is accurate, the bullpen is all but settled. Meanwhile, this morning the Nats reassigned utilityman Brandon Snyder to the minors (he will remain in the organization, according to manager Dusty Baker, and await an opportunity to help the big league ballclub) and optioned several players yesterday including outfielder Brian Goodwin, who was having a statistically dreadful spring training.
The projected bullpen is now:
Dusty Baker has talked about wanting to have a long man on the roster, a reliever (likely a former starter) who can eat up innings after a starter is knocked out early, or make a spot start if a pitcher is a late scratch from a game, preserving the rest of the bullpen. Convention states that a team should carry one of these long relievers in their bullpen. A mitigating factor here is that Treinen, Blanton, Romero, Perez, and Solis are all former starters, either in the major or minor leagues, and can pitch more than one inning if necessary. Could one of them make a spot start, like Yusmeiro Petit did once last year for the Nats when he was the long man? How many innings could any one of them go in an outing? That is still unknown.
The complicating factor for the Nats is that of their projected seven relievers, only two have options: Glover and Treinen, the closer and the fireman. That reduces the opportunities for pitchers like Trevor Gott, Jimmy Cordero, and Rafael Martin who are expected to begin the year in Triple-A Syracuse, and it also diminishes the ability of general manager Mike Rizzo to make changes and adjustments — for example, to add a long man to the roster in advance of a long West Coast road trip like the swing the Nats will be on from May 29 to June 7, visiting San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, Rizzo would need to option one of the best pitchers in his bullpen.
Of course, Rizzo has a well-deserved reputation as a roster magician. Fringe players on the roster seem to have an uncanny knack for suffering injuries just serious enough to require a short stint on the disabled list at the precise moment a roster spot is needed; unusual roster configurations are employed during spells in which the team can subsist with just four starting pitchers on the roster; unexpected players may be optioned or designated for assignment. Having five relievers who cannot be sent down to the minors without clearing waivers is far from ideal, but based on his history, Rizzo will find a way to work around the problem.
Likely on the outside looking in now are a selection of non-roster invitees. A few weeks ago, as spring training was just beginning, I took a quick look at each of the NRIs being brought to camp. With the last serious bench contender from that group being reassigned to the minors this weekend and Glover reportedly the likely choice for closer, it now appears no NRI will head north with the team unless there is a late injury.
It’s a little funny to look back on that “field guide” from February. I would have picked Jeremy Guthrie as one of the first cuts from camp, based on his miserable numbers from recent seasons and his age (he turns 38 next month). Instead, Guthrie has emerged as one of the most impressive in a group of pitchers signed as free agents this winter to minor league deals with invitations to spring training. Assuming there is no fit for him in a bullpen that looks basically settled, he will likely opt out of his contract and look to latch on elsewhere, with his strong spring (2.45 ERA and 0.82 WHIP over 14⅔ innings pitched, with two highly effective starts) as a selling point. Meanwhile, intriguing young guns Wander Suero and Dustin Antolin were gone quickly without leaving much of an impression; they’ll likely serve as organizational depth in the high minors this year and probably won’t taste the majors.
Guthrie is one of the only remaining NRIs in major league camp as of Sunday. That group also includes Vance Worley, who had a strong 2016 as the swing man for the Baltimore Orioles but has struggled quite a bit this spring (5.02 ERA and 1.53 WHIP over 14⅓ innings pitched, with one start, in which he fared poorly), and a pair of former White Sox in Matt Albers (who hasn’t been charged with an earned run in 11⅔ innings, but also hasn’t pitched more than two innings in any one appearance this spring) and Jacob Turner (a dismal 5.14 ERA and 1.57 WHIP over 14 innings pitched, with one mediocre start).
There just doesn’t look like a spot is open for Guthrie or Worley or one of the others (aging former major league closers Joe Nathan and Neal Cotts also remain in camp, with even less of an obvious place for them to fit on the Washington 25-man roster), unless a late deal is made to clear a space. Enny Romero, acquired in a minor trade with the Tampa Bay Rays late in the off-season, didn’t seem to have a guaranteed job on the team, but he has been lights-out this spring between Grapefruit League action and the World Baseball Classic, and it would now be considered a major upset if the Nats were to place him on waivers.
One other possibility, bearing in mind Rizzo’s roster trickiness, would be a purely procedural move: bring A.J. Cole north with the team to start the year. Cole is reportedly recovering from triceps soreness, and he has had a terrible spring training, but he wouldn’t be coming north to pitch — instead, he’d be working off the remaining days of a five-day suspension he received late in the 2016 season for a purpose pitch aimed behind Pirates third baseman and garbage human being Jung Ho Kang, perhaps while fifth starter Joe Ross (not strictly needed until April 12, thanks to a day off in the middle of the Nats’ opening three-game set against the visiting Miami Marlins) spends some time in extended spring training. That might open the door for an eighth reliever to come on board after Cole does his time, but he would likely be designated for assignment once Ross is needed if it is not possible to option him.
Brandon Snyder was an intriguing Swiss army knife option for the Nats to consider in camp. Drafted as a catcher by the Baltimore Orioles in the first round all the way back in 2005, the 30-year-old has evolved into a super-utility player who can play pretty much every position except shortstop and pitcher. Carrying him on the bench would have theoretically allowed the Nats to use their reserve catcher as a pinch-hitter, with Snyder able to fill in behind the plate when needed. But he has not managed to stick in the majors for long throughout his career, a high strikeout rate has plagued him when facing major league pitching, and he was trying to break camp with a team led by a manager well known for his love of speed as a player not regarded as a very fast baserunner.
Snyder now joins infielders Grant Green, Corban Joseph, and Emmanuel Burriss in minors camp, NRIs who had been vying for a bench spot and are now looking ahead to the Syracuse Chiefs season (assuming they can’t opt out of their contracts). Also in minors camp are outfielders Brian Goodwin, Andrew Stevenson, and Rafael Bautista and infielders Matt Skole, Neftali Soto, and Drew Ward, Nats minor-leaguers who got a chance to play with the major league team this spring.
Michael A. Taylor entered spring camp as the presumptive favorite to break camp with the team, rounding out a bench that also includes backup catcher Jose Lobaton, backup first baseman Adam Lind, backup utility infielder Stephen Drew, and backup outfielder Chris Heisey. At this point, his only competition is switch-hitting infielder Wilmer Difo, who has gotten a few opportunities this spring to play center field as well, and incumbent reserve first baseman Clint Robinson, a light hitter, sluggish runner, and poor fielder who is out of options but is well-liked in the clubhouse and by the front office.
Taylor is a favorite of Dusty Baker. He is having a characteristically outstanding spring training with the bat and has been running the bases well, not making any of the boneheaded gaffes that frustrated the Nats last year. Difo has also been hitting well this spring, but a job that looked like it would be his was occupied by the late re-signing of Drew this winter, and Baker had a critical review of his baserunning earlier this month, saying, “We love Difo, but we don’t love mistakes. And so far it’s been mistakes on the bases.” As for Robinson, he and Lind are essentially redundant, as lumbering, left-handed-hitting first basemen who figure to back up regular first baseman Ryan Zimmerman; when Lind signed days before spring training, it instantly made Robinson a long shot to make the roster, and Robinson’s spring results have done little to inspire the Nats to think otherwise.
It’s really down to Taylor and Difo at this point, barring a surprise. If the Nats’ assessment is that Difo needs more time to polish his game and Taylor needs to either sink or swim this season after two disappointing major league campaigns, it’s easy to see Taylor breaking camp with the team but perhaps being kept on a shorter leash than he was last year, when he was finally sent down in July after a dreadful first half split between filling in for injured center fielder Ben Revere and playing off the bench to spell Revere and veteran left fielder Jayson Werth. If the Nats are concerned by Taylor appearing to fall off his torrid pace after taking a few days off due to his father’s death, they could take a chance on Difo, but they would have to do so knowing that the move could damage their relationship with Taylor and his confidence in himself. With both players having a good spring, it seems unlikely.
On the catching side of the equation, a logjam created by the late signing of Matt Wieters to replace Wilson Ramos as the Nats’ everyday catcher was cleared up earlier this month when the team released Derek Norris, who had been acquired early in the off-season. Jose Lobaton will back Wieters up. Jhonatan Solano remains in major league camp, while minor league catchers Pedro Severino and Raudy Read have been optioned and another catcher, Spencer Kieboom, was outrighted from the roster to make room for the mid-spring signing of reliever Joe Blanton and then later reassigned to minor league camp. Solano is not considered a realistic possibility to break camp with the team, but having the veteran around is useful as catchers and pitchers alike are getting stretched out and finding their form.
It ain’t over ’til it’s over, as the legendary Yogi Berra was fond of saying, but right now, here is the Nats’ projected regular-season roster: