We’re now a week into Grapefruit League action, and while that’s still very early, we’re beginning to see some patterns emerging and perhaps a few hints for Opening Day from the Washington Nationals.
It appears increasingly likely that second baseman Daniel Murphy will start the season on the disabled list after undergoing a microfracture surgery and debridement procedure on his knee in October. Team officials have not yet said that Murphy will miss Opening Day, but he has yet to swing a bat in the cage or run the bases, and there’s less than a month to go before Anthony DeSclafani toes the slab and the Nats’ 2018 season gets underway on March 29.
If Murphy has to begin the season in extended spring training at The Fitteam Ballpark of the Palm Beaches rather than with his team at Great American Ball Park, that leaves general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Dave Martinez with some choices to make about the spot on the 25-man roster that is presumptively Murphy’s.
Five-man bench, seven-man bullpen
This is the vanilla approach to filling the Daniel Murphy-shaped hole in the roster that he will leave if he starts the season on the disabled list. It has a few different formulations, and we’re learning some things about the way Dave Martinez views his players from how he has used them this spring.
Murphy is a middle infielder, so it would make the most conventional sense to replace him on the roster with another middle infielder. Specifically, Murphy plays second base (and can play some first and third, too, in a pinch), so the logical candidates here would probably be Matt Reynolds, Adrian Sanchez, and non-roster invitee Reid Brignac.
Matt Reynolds was acquired in a cash deal with the New York Mets last month. A super-utility player, he appeared at every position except for pitcher and catcher in 2017 between the Mets and their Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas. What Reynolds is not is a great hitter. His numbers in the Pacific Coast League have been pretty good, but that’s a very hitter-friendly league, and in the majors, he really hasn’t shown much with the bat. That being said, the Nats clearly acquired him with Murphy’s injury in mind, and he figures to be the favorite for this fifth bench spot. His roster status works in his favor, as he is on the Nats’ 40-man. He can also be optioned to the minors. He enters Friday’s action with a .250/.750 batting line. Most notably, in not one but two of his six games so far, he had two walks and no official at-bats.
Adrian Sanchez was a surprise contributor to the Nats in 2017. A ten-year stalwart of the Washington farm system, the utility infielder got the call to the majors after shortstop Trea Turner suffered a wrist fracture in late July. Sanchez wasn’t an offensive dynamo, but he held his own and definitely helped the cause with a hot August in which he hit .429/1.019 as a part-time player. Sanchez’s defense up the middle is pretty questionable, unfortunately. He’s flashed the leather at third base but didn’t look impressive at shortstop or second base, and he’s committed an error at each of those positions so far this spring. Like Reynolds, he is on the 40-man roster, and like Reynolds, he can be optioned to the minors. He’s gone 1-for-11 so far this spring heading into Friday’s game after appearing in six contests to date. He’s also stolen a base.
Reid Brignac was added to the Nats on a minor league deal this winter, continuing his tour of the National League East. The former Miami Marlin, Atlanta Brave, and Philadelphia Phillie has never hit much, and after an unsuccessful experiment as a switch-hitter with the Houston Astros organization last year, he’s back to being a full-time left-handed bat. He can play the same positions as Sanchez: second base, shortstop, and third base. Working significantly against Brignac are the twin facts that he is not on the 40-man roster and he cannot be optioned to the minors. He could be this year’s Grant Green, a non-roster invitee whose contract was selected early in the season last year but was designated for assignment as soon as his roster spot was needed. But with no long-term vacancy, that looks like his best bet of reaching the majors with the Nats. Also to his detriment, Brignac is batting .125/.458 across six games heading into Friday, and he committed a fielding error Thursday. Martinez has tried him out at all three of his typical infield positions, unlike Sanchez, who has played only second and third.
With left fielder Adam Eaton expected to be ready for Opening Day but possibly still limited by his own knee surgery last year, the Nats might opt to take advantage of Murphy’s absence to give the outfielders a little bit of insurance. While the Nats have said they will not call up Victor Robles unless it’s so he can play every day, there are other outfielders who could be considered for the bench spot.
Jose Marmolejos was added to the 40-man roster after the 2016 season but spent all of 2017 at Double-A Harrisburg. The two-time Nats Organizational Player of the Year is raring for a chance to make his major league debut, but he’s effectively blocked under normal circumstances by Matt Adams, who is also a left-hitting first baseman and corner outfielder without much defensive value. Marmolejos is a consistent hitter who had no trouble last year with Double-A pitching, but while he has some power, that tool is below-average by the high standards of first basemen and corner outfielders, and he’s not particularly quick. He is on the 40-man roster and has minor league options. He’s having a good spring so far, appearing in all seven games the Nats have played and hitting .313/.728 entering Friday. He’s appeared at first base and in right field so far.
Andrew Stevenson made his major league debut last year, but he didn’t make much of an impression. The 2015 second-round draft pick is known as a glove-first player. He profiles as a line drive hitter, which allows him to hit for some average, but he doesn’t have a lot of pop, so he’s likely limited to a bench role as a major league player. Right now, he’s essentially blocked by Brian Goodwin, but like Marmolejos, having an extra bench spot open could give him a chance to start the season in Cincinnati. He is on the 40-man roster and can be optioned to the minors. Stevenson boosted his chances with a clutch two-out double that drove in two insurance runs on Thursday. Overall, on the spring, he’s hitting .267/.753 in parts of six games entering Friday. Interestingly, although he is nominally a center fielder, he’s only appeared in left and right fields so far this spring.
Moises Sierra is trying to make the team after joining the Nats on a minor league contract this winter. Once a top outfield prospect, Sierra has had a middling career so far and hasn’t appeared in a major league game since 2014, although he’s been a quality hitter in the upper minor leagues in the interim. This spring, though, the righty-swinging Sierra has been the Nats’ hottest hitter, posting a .455/1.227 line and appearing in all seven games so far; he has also tallied one of the team’s two home runs entering Friday. He’s played both left and right field and isn’t really considered a center fielder. Unfortunately for Sierra, he isn’t on the 40-man roster and cannot be optioned to the minors, so like Brignac, the Grant Green path is probably his ceiling for right now.
The Nats project to have Howie Kendrick able to step in as the starting second baseman, with Wilmer Difo as a capable backup (assuming Difo, still hitless for the spring, can get his bat going). They’ll also have no real shortage of outfielders. Goodwin projects to be the fourth outfielder, and Kendrick, Difo, and Adams all logged varying amounts of time on the grass last season. So they might simply decide to go with the player they like most, or the player who gives them a degree of flexibility they’re looking for.
Chris Dominguez spent last season in the Chicago Cubs organization with new Nats manager Dave Martinez, although Martinez was with the big league team and Dominguez played for Triple-A Iowa. A capable enough hitter in the minor leagues, Dominguez last played in the major leagues in 2015. He’s always been limited by three things: He doesn’t hit a lot of home runs for a corner infielder, he strikes out a lot, and he hardly ever walks. Dominguez isn’t on the 40-man roster, but as far as I can tell, if he is added to the roster, he’s only had one of his three options exercised, so he could be sent down to the minors rather than having to be designated for assignment once the Nats need his roster spot. He’s having an unspectacular spring, hitting .273/.545 across all seven games so far entering Friday. He’s played first and third base, his usual positions, and has gotten some positive reviews for his defense.
Spencer Kieboom has major league experience in the most generous definition of the phrase. He was called up in 2016 after an injury to Nats starting catcher Wilson Ramos late in September, got a pinch-hit opportunity in the last game of the year, and worked a walk, leaving him without an official major league at-bat and a career on-base percentage of 1.000. Kieboom describes himself on Twitter as a “natural SIX converted TWO”, having played as a catcher for the Clemson Tigers. He’s only ever been a catcher as a professional ballplayer, but Martinez has been having him get back to some of his infielder roots, as he’s appeared in two of his seven games as a first baseman. After a breakout 2017 season, Kieboom is leading the team early in RBIs with four and has an OK-ish .286/.619 slash line heading into Friday’s contest. He could function off the bench as a third-string catcher while also being able to fill in at first base. What would be very interesting is if Martinez tries him out at one or two more new positions, too.
Pedro Severino looks like he’s just about down to his last strike in the Washington organization. The former top catching prospect has slid in the rankings and now looks likely to end up starting the year in the minors once again, following the signing of non-roster invitee Miguel Montero as the Nats’ likely backup catcher. But that competition has not been officially decided, and none of the candidates for it have exactly been dominant. In theory, the Nats could use the roster hole left by Murphy to essentially continue the backup catcher competition into the regular season. (In fact, it’s conceivable, though unlikely, the Nats could dump Montero and carry both Severino and Kieboom.) As with Kieboom, Severino’s presence on the bench would mean that one of the two backup catchers could be used as a pinch-hitter or even a pinch-runner — Severino and Kieboom aren’t speedsters, but they are certainly faster baserunners than the likes of Adams, Montero, Matt Wieters, or most of the team’s pitchers. Severino is not renowned as a hitter, but it’s tough to read much into a .143/.286 slash line when it’s spread across just three games. Unlike Kieboom, Severino has only taken the field as a catcher so far this spring.
Four-man bench, eight-man bullpen
It might not seem like it at first blush, but Daniel Murphy’s injury is an opportunity for the bullpen, too. Instead of filling the fifth spot on the bench it leaves open, the Nats could opt to carry an extra reliever.
Currently vying for a bullpen role are several relievers on the 40-man roster who seem likely to start the year in the minor leagues as depth, including right-handers Wander Suero, Austin L. Adams, and Trevor Gott and left-hander Sammy Solis; as well as several non-roster invitees, including right-handers David Goforth, Chris Smith, Jimmy Cordero, and Roman Mendez and left-handers Tim Collins and Bryan Harper. (Complicating matters, if the Nats end up adding a major league starter like Jake Arrieta this spring, presumptive starter A.J. Cole will presumably be in the mix for a bullpen role as well.)
The Nats’ Opening Day bullpen currently projects to be: Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, Enny Romero, Shawn Kelley, Joaquin Benoit, and Matt Grace. None of those pitchers can be optioned to the minors this season. The conventional wisdom has been that for a minor league pitcher to crack the Opening Day bullpen, either one of those seven men will have to start the year on the disabled list or be designated for assignment during spring training.
Instead, though, all seven of the projected members of the bullpen could simply be joined by one of the hopeful relievers listed above, or by Cole if he is bumped from the rotation. When it comes time for Murphy to join the team, that reliever could be optioned to the minors or designated for assignment, or someone else in the bullpen could get the DFA or be sent to the disabled list himself for some reason.
It’s way too early to tell much from spring stats, but so far, none of the Nats’ reliever candidates have looked terrible. Harper gave up a run in his first appearance of the spring but was perfect in his second appearance. Goforth wobbled in his first appearance, too, walking two batters around a base hit, but he worked out of it and was solid in a second outing. Gott was shaky Wednesday, but the run he allowed went down as unearned. Grace and Romero, seeking to defend their 25-man roster spots, have each allowed a run this spring. So has Solis, who has a minor league option remaining. On the whole, Nats pitching has been quite good a week into spring games. It’s hard to handicap the field here.
If Koda Glover is able to return to action this spring, he would be a strong candidate for a bullpen spot. But the aggressive young fireballer has had a lot of problems staying healthy since making his major league debut in 2016, and he’s currently dealing with a flare-up of the same right shoulder inflammation that ended his season early last year. The Nats figure to bring him along carefully, although they might not yet be willing to give up on having him ready for Opening Day.
Five-man bench, eight-man bullpen
Here’s the thing about that “eight relievers” idea: The Nats might end up doing it anyway without even needing to carry an extra pitcher.
A.J. Cole is the presumptive fifth starter, assuming the Nats don’t sign someone like Jake Arrieta before Opening Day, but the Nats won’t actually need their fifth starter until April 4, for the last game of their second series of the year (at Atlanta). The off-day on March 30 means that Max Scherzer can start on regular rest April 3. Doing so makes sense, too. It gives Nats a chance to throw their best pitcher against the division-rival Braves.
In theory, Cole could start the season in the bullpen, and if he’s needed in relief, the Nats could call up top pitching prospect Erick Fedde or promote a non-roster invitee like Tommy Milone, Edwin Jackson, or Jaron Long (the latter of whom can be optioned back to the minor leagues) for the April 4 start, the way they did last year with Jeremy Guthrie. (In case you forgot, the Guthrie experiment did not work out well.) Stephen Strasburg would then start on April 5, then with the off-day on April 6, he’d start again on April 10, after Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and then Max Scherzer, so either Cole, the April 4 starter, or another starting pitcher from the minor leagues wouldn’t be needed again until April 11. (Because of optioning rules, the April 4 starter would likely only be able to pitch again April 11 if he is not optioned back to the minors following that game.)
You could see a scenario like this, for instance:
March 29: Scherzer
March 31: Strasburg
April 1: Gonzalez
April 2: Roark
April 3: Scherzer
April 4: Long
April 5: Strasburg
April 7: Gonzalez
April 8: Roark
April 9: Scherzer
April 10: Strasburg
April 11: Fedde
This might seem far-fetched. There is certainly no guarantee the Nats will end up going this route. However, of course, we’ve seen this organization maneuver its pitchers this way before.
At any rate, being able to call on Fedde or one of the non-roster invitees for the April 4 and possibly April 11 starts will give the Nats some flexibility in the first few days of the season in case a long reliever is needed. If Cole is needed out of the bullpen and is therefore unable to make those April 4 and April 11 starts himself, he could then join the rotation beginning on April 16, assuming he isn’t used out of the bullpen in the days leading up to that start. (That also assumes whomever starts on April 4 and/or April 11 doesn’t grab the rotation spot himself.) And if Cole isn’t needed out of the bullpen during those two series on the road at Cincinnati and Atlanta, he can start on April 4 as expected.
As for corresponding roster moves — nobody in the projected Opening Day bullpen has options, but several bench players do, including some of the candidates for that fifth bench spot. Wilmer Difo and Matt Reynolds are effectively the same player, except Difo is a year younger, switch-hits, and doesn’t have as much experience in the outfield. They could tag-team in the super-utility role off the bench. Pedro Severino and Spencer Kieboom, both catchers, can be optioned this year. They could theoretically be rotated between the majors and minors. Matt Adams, believe it or not, can be optioned, and so can Jose Marmolejos. It doesn’t seem very likely, but here’s how it could work:
- Adams could start the year assigned to the minor leagues, with the Opening Day bench being, say, Miguel Montero, Wilmer Difo, Brian Goodwin, Spencer Kieboom, and Jose Marmolejos. (Just like the Vegas odds-makers predicted!)
- Erick Fedde is recalled on April 4 to make a spot start. Marmolejos is optioned to Triple-A Syracuse.
- Adams is recalled on April 5 and Fedde is optioned to Syracuse.
- Jaron Long’s contract is purchased from Triple-A Syracuse on April 11, as he will make the start after A.J. Cole ended up coming out of the bullpen in long relief again. Kieboom is optioned to the minors.
- Pedro Severino is recalled on April 12 and Long is optioned to Syracuse.
Here’s a messier, things-go-wrong variation:
- Opening Day bench of Miguel Montero, Wilmer Difo, Brian Goodwin, Spencer Kieboom, and Matt Adams.
- Tommy Milone’s contract is selected for the April 4 start. Let’s say Kieboom is optioned to make room.
- Milone starts again on April 11, but it doesn’t go well.
- Milone is designated for assignment on April 12, following in the footsteps of Jeremy Guthrie. Pedro Severino is recalled from the minors to once again give the Nats a five-man bench including two backup catchers.
And another variation:
- Opening Day bench of Miguel Montero, Wilmer Difo, Brian Goodwin, Matt Reynolds, and Matt Adams.
- Tommy Milone’s contract is selected for the April 4 start. Reynolds is optioned to make room.
- Milone starts on April 11.
- Daniel Murphy is judged to be ready to return on, say, April 15. Matt Grace, let’s say, has been really struggling out of the bullpen. Milone hasn’t been amazing, but he’s been good enough that the Nats don’t want to lose him, and they think his stuff could play up in relief. Grace is designated for assignment. Milone slides into the bullpen to take his spot. Cole shifts out of the bullpen into the rotation. Murphy is activated. Howie Kendrick moves to the bench, giving the Nats a five-man bench again.
And here’s one more variation that doesn’t end as well for Cole:
- Opening Day bench of Miguel Montero, Wilmer Difo, Brian Goodwin, Spencer Kieboom, and Matt Adams.
- Milone is selected on April 4 for the start. Kieboom is optioned to the minors.
- Milone starts on April 11.
- That magic Murphy return date rolls around, and by now, Milone has been looking really good as a starter, and while the Nats like Cole well enough out of the bullpen, they’ve decided Milone is a better fit than Cole in the rotation. One of the other relievers, say, Enny Romero, gets a hangnail or something. Murphy is activated as Romero goes on the disabled list. Kendrick moves to the bench. Milone remains a starter and Cole’s dreams of being a starter this season are cruelly dashed.
Four-man bench, nine-man bullpen
Hey, why not combine Options 2 and 3? In this scenario, the Nats head into Opening Day with a svelte bench but both A.J. Cole and another relief pitcher augmenting their seven-man bullpen unit.
On April 4, instead of a bench player being sent down, that extra reliever is optioned (assuming if he’s someone like Wander Suero, Bryan Harper, Sammy Solis, Koda Glover, or Austin L. Adams, all of whom have minor league options) and a spot starter is recalled. From there, the Nats can either proceed with a four-man bench and eight-man bullpen, or they could option or DFA the spot starter and then make the bench whole by bringing someone up from the minor leagues.
- Opening Day bullpen of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, Enny Romero, Shawn Kelley, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Grace, A.J. Cole, and Sammy Solis. Opening Day bench of Miguel Montero, Wilmer Difo, Brian Goodwin, and Matt Adams.
- Erick Fedde is recalled on April 4. Solis is optioned to the minors.
- His work complete, Fedde is optioned on April 5 and Matt Reynolds is recalled.
This does seem like a bit of overkill, and if the Nats end up carrying the extra reliever on Opening Day, the chances they’ll actually need to use Cole out of the bullpen don’t seem high. This seems like the least likely of these four broad scenarios for that reason. If the Nats have thirteen pitchers and twelve position players on the roster on Opening Day, the expectation would probably be that Cole will start on April 3 or April 4, and the Nats will simply get by with a four-man bench until either a pitcher is injured or Daniel Murphy is activated from the disabled list.
A note on 40-man roster spots
Every spring, there’s some roster shuffle. Spencer Kieboom lost his spot on the 40-man roster last year when the Nats signed Joe Blanton. Clint Robinson was outrighted at the end of spring training when the Nats officially decided they didn’t have room for both him and Adam Lind. And so it goes.
Right now, it looks like pitcher Austin Voth might be on the hot seat, as he has been taking up a 40-man roster spot since 2016 but still doesn’t look like viable starting depth (you might have noticed he wasn’t mentioned in this piece as a possible April starter even though the likes of Erick Fedde and even organizational filler piece Jaron Long were). Kelvin Gutierrez was added to the 40-man roster after the 2017 season, but it seems unlikely that a team would claim him except to try to slip him through waivers themselves. Rafael Bautista also didn’t merit a mention as a possible contender for the fifth bench spot, as although he’s gotten plenty of playing time this spring, he’s just not much of a hitter. Trevor Gott has been struggling to justify the 40-man roster spot he’s held down since 2015, and guys like Wander Suero and Austin L. Adams have likely overtaken him on the organizational depth chart by now. Adrian Sanchez is a 27-year-old accidental major league player who lost some of his utility as a depth piece with the trade for Matt Reynolds and the signing of Reid Brignac.
No one is advocating for these players, or any others, to be designated for assignment just for the sake of it. In an ideal world, the Nats would be able to call on any or all of them if the need arises this season. The point is that if roster spots are needed, they can be found.