It hasn’t been an especially eventful winter for the Washington Nationals, as general manager Mike Rizzo has preferred to bring back contributors to the 2017 season rather than acquiring new players for the Nats’ 40-man roster. Even still, there will be some faces in spring training camp that fans might not recognize, including two players who played for division rivals last year and a few more who are on the roster but have yet to make their major league debuts.
In this post, we’ll be looking only at rostered players who have never logged a plate appearance for the Nats. That means non-roster invitees like Miguel Montero, Reid Brignac, Edwin Jackson, and Bryan Harper won’t be covered here. For the curious, here’s our post on non-roster position players, and here’s our post on non-roster pitchers.
Will 2018 be the year these guys suit up for the Nats? We’ll get to see them in the curly W in the Grapefruit League, if nothing else.
#50 Austin Voth
2017 stats (minors): 5.94 ERA, 122⅔ IP, 1.63 WHIP, 1.83 K/BB
2017 stats (majors): N/A
2016 was supposed to be Austin Voth’s year. Sharp all year at Triple-A Syracuse, with a 3.15 ERA and 1.24 WHIP at the age of 24, Voth was nonetheless repeatedly passed over for a major league call-up. Then he was added to the 40-man roster ahead of 2017, which was supposed to be Austin Voth’s year. Instead, Voth fell apart, earning a demotion to Double-A Harrisburg after struggling to a 6.38 ERA in Triple-A and then continuing to scuffle at the lower level. Far from finally earning the major league role he never got in 2016, Voth moved backward. Now he’s approaching his 26th birthday (in June) and has fallen almost entirely out of the conversation as the Nats work to determine who will fill out their Opening Day rotation.
Voth has never been a power pitcher, earning some comparisons to Tanner Roark with a low-90s fastball that has late movement and effective-enough secondary pitches that give him some deception. And the good news for Voth is that while his overall numbers in 54⅓ Double-A innings last year were pretty poor, he did manage to get his walk rate down while bringing his strikeout rate up. That’s a formula that could get Voth ahead, as long as he can do better at limiting hits and home runs (his H/9 rate was in double digits last year and his HR/9 rate was above one).
Unfortunately, Voth enters 2018 spring training in a very different place than he did a year ago. His fight this spring won’t be to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster, or even at the top of the organizational depth chart, but instead to shore up a spot on the 40-man roster that will start looking very tenuous if Rizzo decides to make some opportunistic signings before the season begins. A bounceback season for Voth could potentially put him in line for the September call-up he didn’t get last year, but at this point, it’s difficult to project him as a realistic rotation option unless the Nats are overwhelmed with injuries.
#51 Wander Suero
2017 stats (minors): 1.79 ERA, 65⅓, 1.07 WHIP, 3.42 K/BB
2017 stats (majors): N/A
Wander Suero’s 2017 campaign was the mirror image of Voth’s. An unheralded 25-year-old relief prospect at the start of the season, Suero soon slid into the closer role at the back of the Double-A Harrisburg bullpen and impressed, racking up ten saves with a 1.96 ERA and outstanding 4.60 K/BB, striking out a batter per inning. By mid-season, Suero was at Triple-A for the first time, where he took over closing duties and notched ten more saves with an even-better 1.70 ERA. It was somewhat of a surprise when the Nats didn’t promote him in September, but he was added to the 40-man roster almost immediately after their season ended and earned the 2017 Minor League Pitcher of the Year award for the organization.
Suero was originally a starter, but after finding his footing in Double-A as a reliever, he enjoyed a strong 2016 and an even stronger 2017 that have suddenly put him in line for a major league role, despite never ranking among Washington’s top prospects on MLB.com. There are a few reasons for that, which are reasons for a bit of caution despite what was obviously a very good 2017 for Suero — for one, he’s 26, making him rather old for a prospect (this is the same challenge lefty reliever Bryan Harper had in 2016 in earning much prospect buzz at Triple-A, even before he blew out his elbow), and for another, he’s not a hard thrower, with a cut fastball that tops out south of 95 mph. Another warning flag is the disparity between his earned run average and his run average, which ran markedly higher at 2.48 for the season. RA is often a meaningless statistic, but considering how inconsistent minor league scorekeeping can be, it’s worth bearing in mind when it differs so much from ERA.
The Nats already might have to make some difficult choices due to their roster math in the bullpen this spring. Suero, who has three options remaining, looks likely to start the year in Triple-A. But unless he does very poorly against more advanced hitting this spring or ends up with an injury, Suero looks likely to be called upon at some point this season if the Nats need a right-handed reliever up from the minors. His extreme upside is ending up as a fill-in setup man or even getting a chance or two to close in the majors later this year.
#68 Jefry Rodriguez
2017 stats (minors): 3.32 ERA, 57 IP, 1.11 WHIP, 2.68 K/BB
2017 stats (majors): N/A
Added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft last year, Jefry Rodriguez is coming off a disappointing season. That disappointment stems not from his results, which were pretty good over 10 starts and two relief appearances at High-A Potomac, but from an 80-game suspension with which he was slapped for failing a test for performance-enhancing drugs. The owner of what Baseball America rates as the Nats farm system’s best fastball ended up with both a black mark on his record and significantly reduced development time.
Now 24, Rodriguez still hasn’t pitched above A-ball, so time is beginning to be a factor for this pitching prospect. The Nats are hoping that his big 6′ 5” frame and power heater will allow him to move quickly in 2018 despite the frustrations of 2017, and he will get a chance to participate this year in his first major league spring training. The key for him this year will be building off the improved command of the strike zone he showed when he was on the field last season, as his 3.0 BB/9 represented his second straight year of significant improvement in terms of walks allowed.
Like Voth, Rodriguez doesn’t really figure to be in the hunt for the fifth starter spot on the Opening Day roster. This is an opportunity for him to get some development time in and learn from some of the best pitchers and coaches in baseball. He’ll likely head to Double-A for the first time to begin the season, where a very good year could earn him a cup of coffee in September and consideration for a major league role next spring.
#73 Kelvin Gutierrez
2017 stats (minors): .278 AVG, .748 OPS, 2 HR, 5/5 SB, 0.35 BB/K
2017 stats (majors): N/A
Well-regarded infield prospect Kelvin Gutierrez had a significant season last year, proving his contact bat will play at High-A, where he spent most of the year, and impressing over 13 games in the Arizona Fall League. The dedicated third baseman ended up seeing some action at the other end of the infield in Arizona, playing 29 innings of error-free first base. The Nats can now picture him as a utility infielder who might even be ready to fill in as an injury reserve later this season.
Gutierrez, 23, isn’t a power hitter. That’s going to limit his progression as a corner infielder, whether he stays at third base exclusively or begins sliding across the diamond to play some first for Double-A Harrisburg, where he’s likely to begin the 2018 season. While the Nats have been hoping the power will come — and, to be fair, it still could — he’s coming up on his mid-20s and it’s nowhere in evidence. He also doesn’t walk much, taking just 23 free passes in 68 minor league games last year. The good news is that his batting average is up around .300, even if a rehab stint in rookie ball dragged it down a bit last year, and his fielding is considered to be quite good. Those are tools that could play for a bench player.
Like most of the other players on this list, Gutierrez isn’t playing for an Opening Day roster spot or even to earn an early-season call-up. But he’ll have a chance to drill with guys like Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman this spring, and Nats brass will have an opportunity to get a closer look at a player for whom 2018 will be very telling.
#71 Jose Marmolejos
2017 stats (minors): .288 AVG, .819 OPS, 14 HR, 0/2 SB, 0.56 BB/K
2017 stats (majors): N/A
So, what’s going on with Jose Marmolejos? Added to the 40-man roster after the 2016 season, Marmolejos spent all year putting up solid numbers with Double-A Harrisburg. Formerly limited to first base only, Marmolejos spent some time in left field and even in right field last year, enhancing his utility. He was blocked by Adam Lind at the major league level, but he was looking by September like he could be a contributor down the stretch, maybe even a favorite for a bench spot in 2018. Yet, along with the underperforming Voth, he was one of two healthy players on the 40-man roster who was not called up when rosters expanded, and when the Nats signed Matt Adams to replace Lind in December, any chance he had of sneaking onto the 2018 Opening Day roster (barring injuries) vanished.
Marmolejos has twice been named the Nats’ Minor League Player of the Year, so clearly he has fans within the organization, and having just turned 25, he’s not quite aged out of consideration as a prospect. Yet for some reason, the Nats decided he wasn’t ready to face major league pitching last year, or that they couldn’t afford to give him any playing time down the stretch. Marmolejos heads into another major league spring training camp, then, with something to prove. He’ll look to prove that his combination of effective hitting and decent power can play against more advanced pitching and that he can be trusted at both first base and the corner outfield if called upon to play there.
Ultimately, Marmolejos’ problem is that he isn’t outstanding in any single facet of the game, and the bar for a first baseman’s offense is set much higher than it is for, say, a catcher or a shortstop. Even still, he looks like he’s close to major league ready as a second- or third-string reserve, and he could potentially make the roster in the early going if injuries create an opening. He won’t be competing against Adams this spring — not really, anyway — but he’ll be fighting to prove he should be considered the top organizational depth option at first base this season.
#19 Matt Reynolds
2017 stats (minors): .320 AVG, .880 OPS, 4 HR, 2/4 SB, 0.53 BB/K
2017 stats (majors): .230 AVG, .626 OPS, 1 HR, 0/1 SB, 0.38 BB/K
A bit of a surprise addition to the Nats’ roster this month, utilityman Matt Reynolds joins Washington from the division-rival New York Mets. Acquired for cash, Reynolds figures to represent depth that can be stashed at Triple-A this season, but it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to the pitcher-friendly International League after putting up some head-turning offensive numbers in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
The 27-year-old Reynolds has spent his entire career to date with the Mets, but across parts of two major league seasons, he carries a paltry .228/.652 batting line. Since he doesn’t figure to be a major contributor with the bat, in spite of those PCL-assisted minor league stats, Reynolds’ ticket to returning to and sticking in the bigs this year for Washington is going to be his glove. It certainly helps that Reynolds played every position except catcher and pitcher between New York and Triple-A Las Vegas last year.
With Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton both still questionable for Opening Day, Reynolds could be in line to start the season either on the bench or filling in at either position if one or both begin the year on the disabled list. Murphy and Eaton are reportedly “on track”, though, and it looks likely Reynolds will be assigned to Triple-A Syracuse. Considering his versatility and major league experience, Reynolds has to be considered the Nats’ top injury reserve for nearly every spot on the diamond, perhaps sharing consideration with Adrian Sanchez in the infield, Marmolejos at first base, and Andrew Stevenson or non-roster invitee Moises Sierra in the outfield. His competition in spring is Reid Brignac, whom the Nats brought in on a split deal to vie for a spot as infield bench depth, and Sierra and Ryan Raburn, who could be insurance policies in left field if Eaton’s rehabilitation from knee surgery hits a snag.
#17 Matt Adams
2017 stats (minors): N/A
2017 stats (majors): .274 AVG, .841 OPS, 20 HR, 0/0 SB, 0.26 BB/K
The only player on this list who spent all of 2017 in the major leagues, Matt Adams was shipped from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Atlanta Braves midway through the year and proved such a force in the Braves’ lineup that the team briefly experimented with playing star first baseman Freddie Freeman at third base in order to keep him in a starting role. (Similarly, the Cardinals tried to use him in left field but gave up and traded him after some bad defensive outcomes.) A free agent after the season, Adams signed with the Nats and will slide into the backup first baseman job that Adam Lind occupied in 2017.
Adams has slimmed down somewhat since tipping the scales at 260 lbs in 2016, but he’s still a big, burly slugger whose value comes almost entirely from his power bat. The role the Nats will ask him to occupy in 2018 is a familiar one for Adams, and fans can look forward to the majestic home runs that helped earn him the nickname “Big City.” On the downside, Adams is no option at all against left-handed pitching — he posted a bleak .180/.583 slash line against southpaws last season — and he’s really slow, with only one triple recorded in the last three seasons. He’s also going to be a defensive liability anywhere but first base, although manager Davey Martinez suggested Friday he’ll probably be used at least occasionally in the outfield.
Adams is the only player on this list whose Opening Day roster spot is essentially guaranteed. While he’s only on a one-year deal for 2018, Adams figures to be a season-long contributor for the Nats if he stays healthy, as he cannot be sent to the minors without clearing waivers and has a tailor-made role off the bench. If starter Ryan Zimmerman, who has dealt with medical issues in several recent seasons, ends up on the disabled list at some point, Adams could form the long side of a platoon with fellow bench bat Howie Kendrick to hold down first base until he returns.