Washington Nationals: Who the heck is that guy? A field guide to the position players NRI Part II

The Washington Nationals have 39 players on the 40-man roster today, and 24 non-roster-invitees who will be on the Spring Training roster which will add up to a total of 63 players in uniform.

Spring training is nearly upon us, and with the return of baseball (albeit in a slightly unreal exhibition form) invariably comes a bunch of guys wearing Washington Nationals jerseys and caps whom most fans have never heard of. They’re the non-roster invitees: free agents signed over the winter who accepted minor league deals, in many cases with opt-outs either toward the end of spring training, at some point mid-season, or both, along with a handful of minor league players (not on the 40-man roster) who are considered to be either prospects the team wants to evaluate or organizational players who help fill out the roster for a couple weeks.

Most of these guys will get a few hits, or rack up a few strikeouts, or make a few good plays, and then (maybe having gone three-for-fifteen or allowed four earned runs in six innings, or something like that) they’ll be gone, sent down to minor league camp or released to try to find their fortunes elsewhere. A few of them might stick around until just before the team goes north — an impressive prospect who does well enough that management wants more time to evaluate him, like Trea Turner last spring, or an organizational player who helps spread out the workload at a position, like Jhonatan Solano last spring, or a non-roster invitee who really impresses and makes a strong argument for a place on the team, like Sean Burnett last spring. And, if the cards fall right, one or two or three of them might even have their contracts purchased and find themselves at Nationals Stadium by March’s end, like Chris Heisey and Matt Belisle last year (and Dan Uggla and Clint Robinson in 2015).

So who are these sorta-Nats, the players we may or may not come to know and love this season? Let’s start by looking at the minor-leaguers who were in the organization last year and are getting a chance to play with the big boys, even though they don’t have spots on the 40-man roster.

This is Part II where we look at the position players who are non-roster-invitees for the Washington Nationals in Spring Training:

Drew Ward

A third baseman who has been dogged throughout his development by murmurs he might not make the grade at the hot corner, Ward set out to prove his doubters wrong in 2016, and his persistence and play are being rewarded with an invitation to major league spring training this year.

Ward earned a promotion to Double-A Harrisburg last year after putting up an exceptional .278/.377/.491 triple slash for High-A Potomac, batting in 32 and banging 11 home runs from the left side of the plate. He struggled with the transition to Double-A, managing a meager .219/.310/.309 line over 203 plate appearances, although he added 24 more runs batted in and three more homers. Across both levels, his triple slash was .252/.348/.412. He went on to play for the Glendale Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League, earning a Fall Star Game berth and finishing the fall with a .309/.391/.383 line.

While Ward has yet to find his power stroke at the higher levels and he has a high strikeout rate, his on-base percentage is testament to his ability to work a batting count and take walks. He is ranked as the Nats’ seventh-best prospect. At age 22, he has time to improve; he was drafted by the Nats in the third round back in 2013, but he signed out of high school, lengthening the time he has to develop in the farm system.

Ward has logged every one of his professional innings on defense at third base, where he has a not-so-hot .919 fielding percentage for his minor league career. A shortstop in high school, he has been slow to adapt to third, but his error rate has dropped in recent years. With his arm strength and not that much pop in his bat against more advanced pitching — at least not yet — his best chance at reaching the majors this year or at some point in the future is likely to establish himself as a better defensive player at third, rather than try to make his case at a more offensively premium position like first base or corner outfield. It will be interesting to see where manager Dusty Baker wants him during his time in major league camp this spring.

Andrew Stevenson

Ward’s Harrisburg and Glendale teammate, Stevenson is a left-hitting outfield prospect with a ton of speed. He’ll make his first appearance on the major league side of camp in West Palm Beach this spring, too.

Drafted in the second round in 2015 by the Nats after a tumbling catch he made for Louisiana State University in a regional college tournament that year attracted the attention of fans, sportswriters, and perhaps a few scouts, Stevenson has showed decently at the professional level. But a triple slash at High-A Potomac that looked pretty good at .304/.359/.418 across 300 plate appearances translated less well at the Double-A level, where he slashed .246/.302/.328 in 280 times up. In the Arizona Fall League, though, Stevenson dominated with a .353/.417/.518 statline, finishing as the league leader in hits and earning a place on the All-AFL Team.

The rap on Stevenson has always been his lack of power. He’s managed just six home runs since being drafted (two of them coming as a Glendale Desert Dog last fall), although he tripled 10 times last season and tacked on two more in Arizona. He’s got speed, though, ripping 39 bases in 53 attempts in the minors in 2016 and adding nine more in eleven tries in fall ball.

Spring training will provide a great opportunity for Stevenson to show that his fall performance wasn’t just a fluke. If he really has turned a corner in his development, the 22-year-old could be an impact player for the Nats in 2017, and with the bench not set in stone, he could make an argument for consideration as a backup outfielder over the likes of Michael A. Taylor and Brian Goodwin. Look for Dusty Baker to test him in the outfield, where he plays all three positions well, and on the basepaths.

Neftali Soto

One of the more surprising spring training invitees, Soto actually cracked the majors with the Cincinnati Reds back in 2013 and got his first major league hits in 2014. After spending 2015 in the Chicago White Sox organization, he was signed by the Nats for the 2016 season.

Soto found himself back at the Double-A level for the first time since 2011 last year, but he also logged some time with Triple-A Syracuse. At Double-A Harrisburg, he slashed .276/.326/.760 over 371 plate appearances, with 55 RBI, but he was less productive in the International League, managing just .270/.294/.330 and seven RBI over 119 plate appearances. His combined line on the season was .274/.318/.408, and he didn’t make the 40-man roster either for September call-ups or after the season ended.

The 27-year-old Puerto Rican is primarily a first baseman, although he has also played third base and a little bit of shortstop in his minor league career. His defensive ratings at third and short are poor, with a .907 fielding percentage at the hot corner and a .910 fielding percentage in the hole. He’s gotten a tiny bit of work as a catcher and at second base, but nothing really to report there. He bats from the right side.

Soto isn’t considered a top prospect, and at this point, he looks like an organizational player despite a couple cups of coffee in the majors to his name. He’ll hope to compete for a role as the Nats’ backup first baseman this spring; while he’s not the power threat he was as a young Reds prospect and he doesn’t steal many bases, his ability to put up a consistently above-average batting average in the high minors could be a selling point for him.

Emmanuel Burriss

Burriss is not a new face in D.C. Not only was he born and raised in the District, he’s spent some time in the Nats’ minor league system in past years, even appearing in a few games at the major league level during the injury-wracked 2015 season.

The switch-hitting Burriss spent the 2016 season in the Philadelphia Phillies season after winning a bench role out of spring training as a non-roster invitee. He split time between the major league club and Triple-A Lehigh Valley, slashing an extremely light .111/.184/.178 with no runs batted in over 50 plate appearances in the bigs and a slightly more robust .263/.296/.309 with 13 RBI over 187 plate appearances in the minors.

Never highly regarded with the bat, the 32-year-old Burriss is better respected for his speed and glovework. Primarily a shortstop and second baseman throughout his career, he also spent 17 largely uneventful innings in left field last year for the Phillies, and he has sporadically appeared at first and third bases during his career.

While Burriss was a first-round pick of the Giants back in 2006, he’s struggled to stick in the major leagues and has bounced between organizations, occasionally getting work as a big league utilityman. He will hope to latch on with his former team in the same role this year. Failing that, he could serve as depth in Triple-A Syracuse, provided he doesn’t opt out of his minor league deal and go looking for work elsewhere.

Grant Green

An intriguing minor league free agent signing this winter, Green is a prime example of a player who has been successful in the high minors but has not impressed when given opportunities to play at the major league level to date.

Green spent the 2016 season with the Giants. He got 50 plate appearances with the major league club, slashing a below-par .261/.300/.370 with 7 RBI, but did significantly more damage in Triple-A Sacramento. Over 364 plate appearances in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, Green slashed .319/.336/.454 and contributed 52 RBI. That line was generally in line with his career norms, as over parts of five seasons in the PCL, he has an .821 OPS.

At 29, Green is just on the right side of 30, even though his prospect years have long since passed him by. He can play just about anywhere on the diamond, logging significant time in Sacramento last year as a first, second, and third baseman (the latter with an unappetizing .901 fielding percentage) and left and right fielder and with some past experience as a (below-average) shortstop and center fielder.

Burriss, Green was a first-round draft pick, taken 13th overall by the Oakland Athletics in 2009 — and like Burriss, he has had an underwhelming career to date, spending parts of four seasons in the major leagues but never making a strong enough case to stay up. He’ll hope his bat and positional flexibility will show well enough in spring training that he can squeeze onto the bench, giving the Nats a true super-utility option and another right-handed bat off the bench.

Corban Joseph

Joseph doesn’t have the major league pedigree of his fellow non-roster utility signings. He got his major league debut in 2013 with the New York Yankees, but ever since, he’s languished as a minor league journeyman.

Last season, not too far from Washington, D.C., Joseph had what might have been considered a breakthrough year, if he’d actually managed to break through. Playing in the Baltimore Orioles farm system, he started the year in Double-A Bowie and slashed .349/.394/.465 with 12 RBI in 95 plate appearances to earn a promotion to the next level; with Triple-A Norfolk, he pounded out a .305/.362/.435 line with 34 RBI over 313 plate appearances. His total 2016 OPS of .812 across the high minors represented more than a 100-point jump from his 2015, which he spent at Double-A teams in the Orioles and Atlanta Braves organizations.

Joseph’s fielding has also improved recently. Rather error-prone early in his career in professional baseball, he managed a .978 fielding percentage at second base in 2016. He also has experience at first and third bases, although he has primarily been a second baseman during his career.
Joseph was drafted by the Yankees in the fourth round out of high school back in 2008. He’s 28 now, and after an all-too-brief taste of the majors — all of seven plate appearances in 2013, a walk and a double and a run scored and nothing else to his name as a major league ballplayer — he is hunting for a bench role. While he has never hit for much power, his left-handed contact bat and ability to play around the infield make him a dark horse candidate for a roster spot.

Brandon Snyder

Snyder is not a stranger to the Nats, but this spring will mark his first time suiting up for them — with most of his career to date spent with one of their rivals.

Last year, Snyder played in 37 games with the Atlanta Braves, accumulating a substantial .239/.255/.652 batting line with 9 RBI in his 47 plate appearances. At Triple-A Gwinnett, his power regressed to a less garish level but his average jumped, with a .327/.358/.442 triple slash. The right-handed Snyder has never walked much, but he can hit a little.

Defensively, Snyder has most of his innings at first base, where he has done pretty well. He’s experienced but less gifted at third base also, and he has more limited time played in left and right fields. Interestingly, he started his career as a catcher before being converted to corner infield full-time in 2007.

Snyder is 30. He is a former first-round draft pick — all the way back in 2005, when the Baltimore Orioles selected him 13th overall out of Westfield High School in Virginia. The corner fielder is looking to continue his career in the National League East and could compete for a role as the reserve first baseman, with a bit of positional flexibility to take to the grass or slide across to the hot corner in a pinch.

The best advice, of course, is to get to know these guys — but don’t get too attached. Baseball is a tough, tough, business.

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