The surprise acquisition of Howie Kendrick gives the Washington Nationals a clear answer as to who, between corner outfielders Chris Heisey and Ryan Raburn, will eventually emerge as the right-handed backup left/right fielder and power pinch-hitter off the bench. That answer is c) none of the above.
The Nats can now project a postseason bench that looks something like: Jose Lobaton or Pedro Severino (backup catcher), Adam Lind (backup first baseman and left fielder), Howie Kendrick (backup corner outfielder and second baseman), and two of Stephen Drew (utility infielder), Wilmer Difo (backup middle infielder and emergency outfielder), and Brian Goodwin (backup/platoon outfielder). We always knew middle infielder Adrian Sanchez wasn’t likely to factor into the playoffs, and now we know neither Heisey nor Raburn are likely to do so.
For now, injuries mean the Nats’ 25-man roster is a place where Kendrick, Sanchez, Difo, and Goodwin can all coexist, and the 40-man roster has room for those four plus Drew, Heisey, Raburn, and others on the disabled list. But as players begin to return, the roster math will become complicated.
The 25-man (active) roster
September 1 is the date when rosters expand across Major League Baseball, allowing a team to have as many of its 40-man roster members active as they wish. Traditionally, the Nats call up a batch of players who have spent the season on the taxi squad right away, and then bring up a few more over the subsequent days, allowing their Double- and Triple-A affiliates to finish out their seasons with a full team.
With September just over a month away, the Nats can effectively punt on some of the more challenging moves. For instance, Heisey was signed to a major league contract for his second year with the team before he even officially became a free agent. The Nats don’t owe him much in terms of outstanding salary, but with the way general manager Mike Rizzo likes to do business, and especially considering Heisey’s history with his two-time manager Dusty Baker, they may feel they owe him something in terms of letting him finish out the season with the team despite being supplanted in his role as the Nats’ go-to right-handed bench bat. As such, they could keep him on the disabled list, perhaps on an extended rehab assignment, until rosters expand to avoid having to make the difficult decision to cut him.
In theory, these seven guys will need spots on the active roster at some point in the coming weeks. The Nats will also need a spot for Erick Fedde, although if Strasburg’s return is considered to be imminent, they might be able to use a somewhat obscure rule to add Fedde as the “26th man” for tomorrow’s double-header game, making his addition a one-day affair only and avoiding the need to clear a space for him on the active roster. The Nats will furthermore need a spot for A.J. Cole, assuming he is called up to start on August 2 with the double-header throwing off Tanner Roark‘s regular schedule. And, of course, if the Nats add a closer in the final hours before Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline, he will need a spot on the active roster.
Players currently on the 25-man roster with options: Wilmer Difo, Adrian Sanchez, Pedro Severino, Andrew Stevenson, Brian Goodwin, Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Matt Grace, Sammy Solis, Sean Doolittle, Tanner Roark.
Any of these players can be sent to the minors at will without passing through waivers. Obviously, the likes of Rendon, Harper, and Roark aren’t going to be optioned to the minors ever again. As long as Drew is on the shelf, Difo and Sanchez are likely secure, as they are the only shortstops on the active roster. Doolittle is currently the Nats’ closer, so it’s a safe bet he’s not about to go down to the minors.
It’s tricky to game this out without knowing what the Nats’ plan for Fedde and Strasburg is or whether Rizzo will make a trade to bring a ninth-inning guy like Raisel Iglesias, Zach Britton, Justin Wilson, Trevor Rosenthal, or Brad Hand to town. But the Nats can be expected to roughly maintain a balance of 12 pitchers and 13 position players on the active roster, especially at a time when they are relying on a number of players who aren’t regulars in the starting lineup to fill holes created by injuries. As such, you could reasonably expect the corresponding move for a pitcher’s activation would be Solis (likely keeping Grace), the corresponding move for an infielder’s activation would be Sanchez (likely keeping Difo), and the corresponding move for an outfielder’s activation would be…well, probably first it would be to send down third catcher Severino, and then it’d be Stevenson (likely keeping Goodwin).
And it’s worth noting at this point that a player optioned to the minors cannot be recalled for 10 days afterward unless it is to replace a player placed on the disabled list. That’s going to mean a bit of shuffling if Cole is brought up for a spot start.
It goes without saying that there are more guys the Nats are expecting to have back off the DL than there are guys who are reasonable candidates to be optioned back to the minors (not even factoring in the possible acquisition of a new closer). If Taylor, Heisey, Raburn, Drew, Kelley, and Strasburg all come back around the same time, there could be something of a traffic jam. (Of those six, only Taylor can be optioned, but he is expected to take over as the Nats’ starting center fielder again, which would make such a move unlikely.) Which leads to…
The 40-man (full) roster
The 25-man roster fits inside the 40-man roster — all active players must be on the full roster, but players on the full roster need not be on the active roster (unless they are ineligible to be sent to the minor leagues while playing on a major league contract).
Players on the 10-day disabled list retain their 40-man roster spots. There are just two ways to remove a player from the 40-man roster: designate him for assignment or place him on the 60-day disabled list. A player placed on the 60-day DL will then need an empty spot on the 40-man roster to be reactivated.
Ross is certainly out for the season, while Eaton’s chances of returning in time for baseball action this year are very remote. Werth has yet to begin running or throwing. Glover has reportedly started a throwing program but has no announced timetable to begin facing live pitching. The Nats have not indicated they don’t anticipate Werth and Glover returning this season; it’s possible they don’t, but they haven’t been declared to be done for the season. If they return, each will need his spot on the 40-man roster back.
Remember that potential traffic jam with a bunch of players coming off the DL over the next few weeks? If that situation arises, the Nats could find themselves clearing some space on the 40-man roster just to resolve the active roster crowding.
Werth and Taylor are expected to resume their roles in the starting lineup once they return. Heisey and Raburn are expected to return to the bench. With Kendrick, Heisey, and Raburn being essentially redundant players (all right-handed, bat-first corner outfielders), the Nats could choose to designate Heisey and/or Raburn for assignment, especially in a scenario in which Taylor also returns. Once Severino and Stevenson are optioned back to the minors, there’s likely no more room on an active roster in August for whoever makes it back third or fourth out of Heisey, Raburn, Taylor, and Werth.
For the infield, the situation is simpler, because fill-in middle infielders Difo and Sanchez both have options. Drew’s return likely bumps Sanchez back down to the minors — although the Nats could choose to DFA him, as he is essentially an organizational depth piece for whom the stars aligned to earn a cup of coffee in the major leagues this season, rather than a player who is likely to be a key piece for the team going forward — while Turner’s return probably then bumps Difo, although by the time Turner is back, it is likely that rosters will have expanded.
The bullpen picture is already looking a bit crowded even without another trade pickup. Solis’ assignment to the majors is likely temporary, as he was originally expected to go down once Fedde was promoted (and he still could be, if Fedde is not brought up as the 26th man). Grace has solidified his position in the bullpen, although because he has an option remaining, he is the likeliest candidate to be sent down once Kelley is activated. If Glover is activated before September 1, the only remaining reliever who can be optioned is Doolittle, whose option the Nats are highly unlikely to exercise; if the corresponding move is a pitcher, someone like Blanton, Kelley, or Edwin Jackson could be DFA’d to make room for Glover’s return to the 40-man roster and the 25-man roster at the same time.
Because the Nats tend to shift between carrying five starters and seven relievers or four starters and eight relievers depending on their needs, the rotation is closely related to the bullpen. But this is easy: Fedde and Strasburg can essentially be considered to share a spot on the 25-man roster, as the Nats will carry Fedde if Strasburg is on the disabled list and will keep Fedde in the minors if Strasburg is active. Depending on how Jackson performs as the fifth starter, though, it is possible the Nats could clear a spot on their 40-man roster at some point by DFAing him and bringing up Fedde to join the rotation full-time.
How would this all play out?
We have no idea!
The Nats will have to make their second 40-man roster move in as many days tomorrow when they select Fedde’s contract, regardless of whether Fedde is brought up as the 26th man or not. If they acquire a closer before the trade deadline without trading someone from the 40-man roster, another move would be needed to activate him; they also reportedly remain active in the starting pitcher market, so there is an outside possibility that more than one spot on the 40-man roster will be needed as a result of further trade activity.
Let’s imagine an eminently reasonable baseline scenario in which Fedde is selected to the 40-man roster tomorrow and, say, Trea Turner is transferred to the 40-man roster. The next day, the Nats make a trade — for the sake of this example, let’s say it is three minor league prospects who are not on the 40-man roster for Justin Wilson — and DFA minor league reliever Jimmy Cordero to make room on the 40-man roster. Glover returns in a few weeks and Blanton is DFA’d to clear roster space for him. The Nats decide to give a player not on the 40-man roster — for instance, veteran lefty reliever Tim Collins, a free agent signing over the winter who has World Series experience — a shot after rosters expand, so they DFA minor league starting pitcher Austin Voth. After successfully kicking the can down the road for a bit, the Nats need to put Turner back on the 40-man roster once he is off the 60-day disabled list, so they DFA Adrian Sanchez. Sometime in September, Werth is ready to return, so Raburn is DFA’d to clear roster space.
You get a pretty clear sense here of how the Nats have been burning through the dead weight on the 40-man roster and now stand just a move or two away from DFAing players with some amount of value. However, that’s very likely what they will have to do, with up to two players expected to come off the 60-day DL in the weeks to come and at least one minor league player to add.
One possibility that lies before Washington is to trade from the 40-man roster, perhaps even from the 25-man roster, clearing a space that could then be used for a new acquisition rather than needing to DFA a player to make room. The Nats have historically been reluctant to DFA players that management believes can contribute in the short term, so they may prefer to try to recoup some value for them rather than risk losing them for nothing (as other teams have the opportunity to claim a DFA’d player off waivers, as the Cincinnati Reds did last year with Abel de Los Santos).