Who’s heading north? Mike Rizzo has options for the #Nats

The Washington Nationals are almost fully constructed for Opening Day, barring a significant injury during the month of March. After a (sometimes aggravatingly) sleepy winter, general manager Mike Rizzo emerged from hibernation last month, snapping up first baseman Adam Lind, catcher Matt Wieters, and setup man Joe Blanton at a fraction of what they were expected to command at the start of the off-season.

Two things the Nationals have not done this winter are acquire a shutdown closer and add a solid right-handed bench bat. To that end, they’re evaluating their options during this spring camp and are expected to make a final decision on their bullpen and bench composition by the time it wraps up and the team heads north from its new spring home in West Palm Beach.

Here is what the Nationals’ projected Opening Day roster partially is:

Starting pitching:
Max Scherzer
Stephen Strasburg
Tanner Roark
Gio Gonzalez
Joe Ross

Relief pitching:
Shawn Kelley
Blake Treinen
Joe Blanton
Oliver Perez
Sammy Solis
Enny Romero

Matt Wieters
Derek Norris

Anthony Rendon
Trea Turner
Daniel Murphy
Ryan Zimmerman
Stephen Drew
Adam Lind

Jayson Werth
Adam Eaton
Bryce Harper
Chris Heisey

If you’re good at counting, you might notice that’s just 23 names, and a major league active roster is 25. While some teams may run with a longer bullpen or a longer bench to start the season, the typical squad will have seven relievers and five bench players (including the backup catcher, who is projected to be Derek Norris but could easily be Jose Lobaton if the Nationals trade or release the better-paid Norris to clear salary space).

Assuming the Nats stick with the tried-and-true formula of 12 pitchers and 13 position players, they can be said to be considering several candidates to round out the numbers on both sides of the ledger.

On the relief side…

The battle for the seventh spot can be aptly summed up by the fact that just one of the candidates for it is also a candidate for the closer role: 2015 draftee Koda Glover, who skyrocketed through the Nationals organization and contributed 19 2/3 innings to the Nats’ campaign last year. Glover’s 5.03 ERA obscures a rather good 1.12 WHIP, and if you check under the hood, you can see he had a hale 2.63 ERA before a Sept. 9 game in which he served up a three-run home run and blew a lead pitching the eighth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies. (Glover said after the season he had been trying to pitch through a torn hip labrum, which is both a terrible rookie mistake and a possible determinant behind his poor performance late in the year.)

Glover is competing with a few others just to make the major league bullpen. Among roster players, his main competition is probably Trevor Gott, although recently acquired minor league fireballer Jimmy Cordero is a dark horse and erstwhile starting pitcher A.J. Cole could be in line if management decides it wants a dedicated long man in the bullpen. Non-roster invitees are also trying to claim the last spot in the ‘pen, with the leading name among them 42-year-old former elite closer Joe Nathan; others who could contend if the last spot is set aside for a long reliever include Matt Albers, Vance Worley, and Jeremy Guthrie.

To break it down as simply as possible: Glover, Gott, Cordero, and Cole all have options remaining. Nathan can actually opt out a few days before spring training officially ends, and Albers and Guthrie are known to have opt-outs as well. Worley almost certainly has an opt-out built into his contract, considering he spent all of 2016 with the Baltimore Orioles as a swing man.

So this is, in essence, two binary choices for the Nats. Choice #1 is between keeping a non-roster invitee they like by giving him a spot in the Opening Day bullpen and trusting their relief depth enough to let the NRIs go and ride into the season with Glover or another minor league pitcher rounding out the ‘pen. Choice #2 is between giving the last ‘pen spot to a dedicated long reliever, like Worley or Cole, or just going with who management believes is the best pitcher they have who isn’t already on the roster.

On the positional side…

Like choice #2 on the relief end, it really comes down to what management wants on the roster. Manager Dusty Baker is famously enamored with speed, a consideration that could give base thief Wilmer Difo and fleet-footed Michael A. Taylor an edge. On the other hand, one of the watchwords we’ve heard from management all winter is flexibility. That qualification may give non-roster invitee Brandon Snyder an edge, as he can play all four corner positions and fill in behind the plate in a pinch. Also with some claim in that category are Difo, who can play every infield position but first base (albeit with limited experience at third base) and is getting some outfield reps this spring, and non-roster invitee Grant Green, who can do everything but catch and pitch.

Taylor likely has the inside track to the fifth bench spot, because even though he lacks the speed and baserunning instincts of Difo and the positional flexibility of the other candidates, he’s widely known to be a favorite of Dusty Baker, and the Nats have historically been high on his toolsiness. Taylor has flashed great glovework, tremendous power, and blinding speed — enough to be intriguing. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that his most recent solid offensive season was 2014 at the Triple-A level, his career OPS as a major-leaguer is .644, and he swings and misses a lot.

The major player otherwise might be Snyder. While the NRIs this year are mostly a mix of career minor-leaguers and old horses trying to hang onto a major league career, Snyder actually has appeared in 120 major league games for four teams and is hoping to make the Nationals his fifth. In limited action (47 plate appearances) for the Atlanta Braves last year, his first major league campaign since 2013, Snyder blasted 10 extra-base hits and finished with a .907 OPS, although he also struck out 16 times. His numbers were good enough that he was likely able to demand an opt-out date after spring training as part of his minor league contract with the Nats, and he has been having a strong spring that probably has him thinking he can latch on elsewhere if he elects to leave his contract.

Difo is sort of a wild card. He raked in 66 plate appearances last season with a .364 on-base percentage, but he didn’t slug much (.743 OPS). He’s never hit much in the high minors. Unlike Taylor and Snyder, who bat from the right side, he’s a switch-hitter and could potentially be the third on the roster (Wieters and Lobaton also bat from either side of the plate). And he has spent virtually his entire professional career between shortstop and second base, getting a few looks late last season and over the winter in Dominican league play at third base and even more recently trialing in center field. His ability to adapt to those new positions may determine whether he has a future in the major leagues, as well as any chance of making the Opening Day roster this year after infielder Stephen Drew was re-signed to back up the infield.

Other bench candidates (dark horses) are headlined by left-hitting outfielder Brian Goodwin, who is worthy of mention. Goodwin once looked like a strong contender for a roster spot, but that was before the Nats brought back Drew and signed Lind, who both hit from the left side and figure to be used as pinch-hitters on a regular basis to face right-handed pitching. Adding Goodwin or another lefty, like utility infielder Corban Joseph, would stack the bench with three lefties (effectively four, if Lobaton makes it over Norris; the Venezuelan switch-hits but is a much better hitter when he’s standing in the left-handed batter’s box), which would leave the Nats with pretty much only one right-handed pinch-hit option (Heisey), which isn’t ideal.

Clint Robinson is also a left-handed hitter; while he was a roster fixture for the Nats in 2015 and 2016, he struggled badly last season and is largely redundant to Lind, being a slow first baseman who can occasionally stand out in the corner outfield and catch balls hit directly at him. Matt Skole looked like he would compete with Robinson for the backup first baseman role before Lind was signed; he can also play third base, but he has no outfield experience and would leave the Nats with just four outfielders, not counting 2016 center fielder Trea Turner, who is expected to spend most of this season at shortstop, his natural position. Non-roster invitee Neftali Soto, signed during the 2016 season, hits from the right side, unlike the left-hitting Skole, but he is also restricted to first and third defensively.

There are a handful of other guys playing this spring who are trying to impress, including hot young outfield prospect Andrew Stevenson, but they are likely non-factors in making a choice about the Opening Day roster. Stevenson could be a mid-season call-up if he continues his strong performance in the high minors this year, but management will likely prioritize his development over making an immediate impact in the majors.

Are those the only scenarios?

Well, no. Setting aside the ever-present possibility of a serious injury to a starter complicating the Nats’ Opening Day roster picture, there is an outside chance that even after putting a player on the major league roster this winter, the Nats will decide they have better options.

The obvious Exhibit A here is Derek Norris, who was acquired for a minor prospect from the Padres early in the off-season and avoided arbitration with Washington by agreeing to terms on a $4.2 million salary for 2017, before the Nats inked Wieters to take over as the everyday catcher. Norris actually can be optioned to the minors, but with that guaranteed pay, he’s likelier to be jettisoned than sent down to make room for Wieters and Lobaton to form the catching tandem for the Nats. Lobaton, making $1.575 million in his walk year, cannot be optioned down. The Nats will have to make a decision between Norris and Lobaton as the backup catcher before Opening Day, unless injury makes the choice for them.

Norris was available for cheap because he slumped horribly last year, striking out more and walking less than his career norms and posting an atrocious .583 OPS. The Nats also took fliers on a couple other players it hopes can recover from poor 2016 campaigns.

In one respect, Adam Lind has been consistent: He has homered 20 or more times in three of the last four seasons, including last year. On the flip side of the coin, he scuffled to a .717 OPS last year as he appeared to forget how to walk and his average dipped significantly. He has reportedly shown up to spring camp this year in better shape, and the Nats are hoping he can return to his career norms (.790 OPS). They’d also like to see him occasionally stand out in left field to give aging veteran Jayson Werth a break from time to time.

Lind’s base salary for 2017 is just $1 million, as the Nats took advantage of an overstuffed market for big boppers to lock him up on an incentive-laden contract. It’s conceivable he could be released if management doesn’t like what it sees from him this spring, which would open the bench picture back up, potentially giving Robinson and Skole second wind or creating a scenario in which both Taylor and Snyder could make the roster. But considering his upside as a player who has been very good in the recent past, Lind seems like he’s very close to being a lock.

Like Norris, left-handed flamethrower Enny Romero was picked up for a bag of Five Guys cheeseburgers in trade. The Nats got him from the beleaguered Tampa Bay Rays for minor pitching prospect Jeffrey Rosa. Earning league minimum pay this year, Romero is cheap, and he is also out of options. His 5.91 ERA and 1.53 WHIP last season are no one’s idea of good, and the 26-year-old Dominican has no track record of sterling success at the major league level, so his acquisition amounts to the Nats taking a gamble on his blazing fastball and hoping pitching coach Mike Maddux can teach him to throw strikes with it.

So far this spring, Romero (who is pitching for his home country in the World Baseball Classic) has looked good, lighting up the radar gun and retiring his batters. He’s shown enough that he will probably make the team, considering his stuff and spring showing make it unlikely he could pass through waivers unclaimed and so the Nats will lose him if they don’t carry him on the Opening Day roster. He could be a candidate to be designated for assignment if he struggles during the season, though.

On the extreme fringe of plausible scenarios, Chris Heisey is basically an older, slower, less defensively capable version of Taylor, a right-hitting outfielder who can hit for power but not for average; the Nats signed him to a $1.4 million deal for this season after he spent 2016 on the team’s bench. He’s a favorite of Dusty Baker, though, going back to their time together with the Cincinnati Reds, so even though he is blocking some younger, higher-upside outfielders in the organization, he’s probably not going anywhere. Nor is Oliver Perez, in the second year of a two-year guaranteed contract he signed with Washington before the 2016 season; even though the veteran southpaw struggled to a 4.95 ERA and 1.45 WHIP last year, the Nats have about four million reasons to keep him.

To sum up…

We’re almost all set, and whoever the last two players to make the roster are, they will likely end up contributing ~0-0.5 wins above replacement to the Nats this season. But the last two roster battles are deeply meaningful for these players — minor-leaguers struggling to make it in the major leagues, and aging major-leaguers trying to keep their baseball dreams alive — and they’ll supply much of the drama as we chug toward an Opening Day tilt at Nationals Park with the Miami Marlins.

Will Koda Glover claim his place in the bullpen, if not the closer’s role? Or will Joe Nathan, at the age of 42, once again take the mound for a major league ballclub? Or will the Nats turn to someone like A.J. Cole or Vance Worley to eat some innings out of the ‘pen and provide an emergency starting option?

And will Michael A. Taylor get one more chance to prove he belongs in the big leagues? Or will Brandon Snyder defy the odds to make the roster as a minor league free agent signing? Or will the Nats choose to keep bench fixture Clint Robinson around and trust in a heavily left-sided bench in a division stacked with tough right-handed pitching?

Keep watching Nationals baseball and find out…

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