The 2017 baseball season has really flown by, and we now stand less than a month away from September 1, the magical date upon which rosters expand and games become 45 minutes longer because of all the extra pitching changes.
Major League Baseball and players’ association negotiators talked about cutting down the size of expanded September rosters while hashing out the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), in exchange for increasing active roster sizes from 25 to 26. Neither of those things happened. So, just as in previous seasons, we can expect to see upward of 30 players hanging out in each dugout in about a month’s time.
That begs the question of: Who are we going to see joining the Washington Nationals?
Some of the additions are obvious. Reliever Trevor Gott is reportedly recovering from hernia surgery, and it’s unclear how long that will sideline him; if he’s healthy, though, he should be one of the first September call-ups. Catcher Pedro Severino will return to the team, as will outfielder Rafael Bautista, currently rehabbing after an injury suffered not long after he made his major league debut early this season.
But along with the minor league players currently on the Nationals’ 40-man roster, there are a few more players who just might merit some consideration in September — or, particularly since the rules don’t allow players added to the 40-man roster in September to be eligible for the playoffs, even earlier.
Tim Collins. The diminutive (5′ 7”!) left-hander was in the Kansas City Royals’ bullpen during their World Series run in 2014 and even closed out Game 6, a blowout against the eventual champion San Francisco Giants. Early in 2015, though, he underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the season — only to discover a year later that the ligament graft had been unsuccessful, forcing him to have the procedure all over again. The Nationals took a flier on “Tiny Tim” as a minor league free agent signing over the winter knowing that he would miss the first half of the year while recovering. Since returning to action, he has worked his way up the ladder from rookie ball to High-A and is now in the Double-A bullpen. With Enny Romero on the shelf with a “forearm strain” — one of those injuries that could be nothing serious, certainly, or it could be a precursor to Tommy John surgery — the Nationals could look to Collins as a replacement and hope he ends up as one of the true feel-good stories of 2017. He turns 28 this month.
Jacob Turner. It’s been a roller coaster ride for the lanky righty this year, but that’s just the way his professional career has gone. A former first-round draft pick, Turner has never really developed to the potential scouts saw back in 2009, and as a result, he has pinballed around the league, including parts of three seasons with the Miami Marlins. Now 26, Turner has spent the season bouncing between the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs and the Washington Nationals, pitching both out of the bullpen and in he rotation. Whether as a result of being yanked around, misused, or simply not being as good as everyone wants him to be, his numbers haven’t been great, although his past couple starts for the Chiefs have shown some promise.
Wander Suero. The Chiefs closer has been invited to major league spring training twice and has posted solid numbers across Double-A and Triple-A this season, the first in which he has pitched at the highest minor league level. Suero has shown a particular propensity for limiting baserunners, maintaining a WHIP right around 1.00 all season. Suero seems to be a favorite of the MASN broadcasting crew, featuring in what can be fairly said to be more than his share of “minor league insights” check-ins on the air, as he has posted consistently strong numbers in the high minors all season as the major league bullpen’s performance has been uneven at best. Originally signed as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic, Suero’s development had appeared stalled until 2014, and he has made increasingly impressive strides since then. He will be 26 in September.
Spencer Kieboom. The Nats outrighted their oldest catching prospect off the roster to make room for the signing of Joe Blanton early this year, after he made his major league debut as a pinch-hitter on the last day of the 2016 season. It now looks like they made a mistake. While former top catching prospect Pedro Severino has seen his stock drop as he’s missed time with an injury and turned in unimpressive offensive numbers at Triple-A this season, the 26-year-old Kieboom has forced his way into the biggest share of playing time between the Chiefs’ three catchers. Not long ago regarded as a solid, if unspectacular, prospect who simply couldn’t make the adjustments to pitching in the high minors, Kieboom has been raking since he was promoted to Syracuse, originally to take the place of the injured Severino, with a batting average well above .300. He’s also continued to turn in characteristically stellar defense behind the plate, as he has yet to commit an error and has allowed only one passed ball across the Double-A and Triple-A levels this season.
Neftali Soto. A former top prospect with the Cincinnati Reds, Soto got a couple brief cups of coffee in the majors back in 2013 and 2014. They did not go well, and the versatile infielder found himself sold to the Chicago White Sox in 2015. He signed with the Nats on a minor league contract the next year and has been quietly impressing in the Washington farm system ever since. A far better hitter now than he was back when he made his major league debut, comparing his Triple-A stats between 2017 and 2013, Soto has become a linchpin of a Chiefs lineup that is considerably more formidable now than it was during the first half of the season, when Syracuse was the laughingstock of the International League. The 28-year-old Puerto Rican plays corner infield positions and left field, and he has some recent experience at second base as well, but he’s not regarded as an elite defender; this year, he’s mostly played first base.
Clint Robinson. The big first baseman (sometimes charitably called a “1B/OF”) became a fan favorite with the Nationals in 2015, when the then-30-year-old rookie started in 77 games amid injuries to regular first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and left fielder Jayson Werth. Unfortunately, Robinson fell off a cliff the following year, actually performing under replacement level due to his weak hitting and dreadful fielding, and he was outrighted to Triple-A during spring training this year in favor of off-season acquisition Adam Lind, who has proven to be a dynamite addition to the Nationals’ roster. Syracuse seems to have breathed new life into Robinson, now 32. While his batting average remains unspectacular, his power has returned after being almost totally absent from his 2016 campaign, and the Chiefs have taken advantage of having the designated-hitter rule in most of their International League matchups to keep him from being too overexposed on defense. Many fans still have fond memories of Robinson as a bright spot amid a gloomy and frustrating 2015 season and would love to see him back in the curly W again.
Brandon Snyder. The power-hitting utility-man was Syracuse’s Neftali Soto before Neftali Soto made it to Syracuse this season. Selected to the Triple-A All-Star game, Snyder was unable to play after injuring his arm. He has returned to action and continues to be a formidable middle-of-the-order bat for the Chiefs, but he has seen a decline in power since the injury, with Soto and Robinson among those compensating with power surges of their own. Now 30, the Virginia native wound up with a curious batting line when he got a cup of coffee with the Atlanta Braves last season, posting an alarmingly high slugging percentage but also an alarmingly high strikeout rate. He impressed the Nats during spring training this year as a non-roster invitee but was left off the Opening Day roster due to a numbers game, as Washington chose to stick with 40-man roster staples Michael A. Taylor and Wilmer Difo to round out the bench. Snyder is primarily a corner infielder and corner outfielder, but he has been learning second base this season and seeing an increasing amount of playing time there with Syracuse. He was originally drafted as a catching prospect, but he rarely dons the gear these days.
Alejandro De Aza. The peripatetic veteran wound up in the Nats system this season after signing a minor league deal in June. He has definitely been a contributor to the Chiefs’ revitalized performance since then, often coming up with clutch hits when the team needs them and putting up a fine batting average close to .300 and OPS near .800. De Aza plays all outfield positions reasonably well, although at 33, he’s not quite the speed merchant he once was. Quite well-traveled, De Aza previously suited up in the major leagues for the Baltimore Orioles and New York Mets, among other teams.
Victor Robles. The only player on this list considered a real top prospect — Suero and Kieboom rank somewhere outside the Nats’ top 30, according to MLB Pipeline — Robles is in fact the fifth-ranked prospect in all of baseball. Promoted to Double-A late last month as part of a couplet of moves that also moved fellow center field prospect Daniel Johnson Jr. up to take his place on the High-A Potomac Nationals, Robles has picked up right where he left off, flashing ridiculous speed, burgeoning power, great contact skills, impressive glovework, and a more-than-capable arm. (And yes, if you count them, that’s five tools.) Evaluators generally give Robles an ETA to the majors of sometime late in 2018 or early in 2019. At 20, he’s considered very young for the Double-A level. That being said, the Nats have a history of promoting players directly from Double-A to the majors on occasion, and a few former top prospects whose names you might know were promoted aggressively through the ranks back in their day…
Maybe in a perfect world, all of these players would get their cups of coffee this September. They’ve all played so well this season that undoubtedly they feel they deserve it. Sadly, though, the realities of the 40-man roster mean that one or two might — might — be lucky enough to get a look in the majors this season.
The top candidate to have his contract selected and be brought up to the majors, from this list, is almost certainly Tim Collins. The crafty southpaw was signed by the Nats expressly as a possible home-stretch reinforcement with playoff, including World Series, experience. Management has been aggressive in moving him up the chain; he spent very little time in the Gulf Coast League before moving up to High-A, where he pitched just a few innings and is now at Double-A. The next step for him could conceivably be the majors. Especially if Enny Romero‘s ailment is determined to be season-ending, Collins could be a real contender for the playoff roster if he continues to pitch well and stay healthy.
There’s a couple compelling factors that work against the other pitchers here. Jacob Turner has already been outrighted twice this season. He struggled as a Nats starter, he struggled as a Nats reliever, and he has continued to struggle as a Chief. With that history in mind, it’s somewhat challenging to see the Nats deciding once again to gift him a spot on the 40-man roster and actually have it stick this time. (That being said, they’ve seen enough in him to promote him a couple times already.) As for Wander Suero, the Nats didn’t see fit to try him out when the major league bullpen was in dire straits; one wonders why they would want to bring him up now, with the ‘pen better established thanks to veterans brought in at the trade deadline. It’s easy to imagine the Nats waiting until spring training next year to give Suero a more serious look for their 2018 bullpen.
Much has been written of late on the struggles of Washington’s catchers. Marquee free agent signing Matt Wieters has turned into a pumpkin after an outstanding April and now rates as a worse hitter than even many major league backup catchers, while Jose Lobaton turned in a solid July but has overall unappetizing numbers on the season. Pedro Severino has seen only limited action in the majors this year and has seen even his Triple-A playing time diminish as the guy they brought up to fill in for him while he was on the shelf has outperformed him. One has to think management is kicking themselves right now for deciding to cut Spencer Kieboom from the roster — and one suspects there might be a few other front office executives around the league kicking themselves for not claiming him off waivers then, too.
There’s no guarantee Kieboom’s offensive resurgence in Triple-A translates to major league action. It’s possible, too, that he will revert to form as a below-average offensive catcher as he cools off or International League pitchers figure him out. But with Wieters and Lobaton barely hitting and Severino not making a strong case for himself, the Nats could do a lot worse than to find a spot for Kieboom to return to the 40-man roster and give him a real cup of coffee this time. The solution to their catching woes just might have been here the whole time.
For most of the other position players on this list, the problem is just that they aren’t prospects. They’re journeymen whose major league debuts are behind them, along with their prime playing years (the possible exception here might be Neftali Soto, who is a little younger, although still too old to be considered a real prospect, at 28). The Nats could have brought Soto or Brandon Snyder up instead of trading fast-rising pitching prospect McKenzie Mills to rent a right-handed utilityman. Heck, they could have brought one of them up instead of trading for Ryan Raburn earlier this season. Meanwhile, Alejandro De Aza looks a lot like an older, slower Brian Goodwin, while Clint Robinson looks like an older, slower Jose Marmolejos. These players may be better than Triple-A this year, but that doesn’t make them major league-caliber, at least in the eyes of Nats management. They’re Quad-A, and that’s probably not enough for a contending team to give them a spot on the roster.
The pie-in-the-sky idea is promoting Robles to the big leagues this season. While Robles showed well in limited major league spring training action and there’s little doubt his tools could play today in a major league environment, the Nats are unlikely to start his service clock early just to see him off the bench for a few weeks in September, especially with 40-man roster spots at a premium due to the number of players the Nats have needed so far this season. There has been no indication management is considering such a move with Robles this year, and they’re probably right to keep him on his current development track for now, likely including an assignment to the Arizona Fall League after the Double-A season wraps.
One final note: The Nats have already cut the likes of Rafael Martin, Jacob Turner, Matt Skole, Chris Heisey, and Jimmy Cordero from their 40-man roster this season, plucking quite a lot of the low-hanging fruit. While Ryan Raburn (who appears to have been supplanted in his role by Howie Kendrick), Austin Voth (who has plunged in prospect rankings and seems farther than ever from a major league appearance), Adrian Sanchez (whose rookie performance filling in on the roster for the injured Trea Turner has been less than overwhelming), Joe Blanton (who looks far from certain to have his one year with the Nats end with him making a postseason roster), and Austin L. Adams (who continues to allow a terrifyingly high number of baserunners out of the Chiefs bullpen) remain on the 40-man roster, the Nats will need to clear space already for the return of players on the 60-day disabled list, like Jayson Werth and Koda Glover, both currently preparing to start rehab assignments sometime in the not-too-distant future. Moving the decaying remains of Shawn Kelley to the 60-day DL would clear a spot, although likely just temporarily, and if Enny Romero requires surgery, he will likely go to the 60-day DL as well. It’s fair to say the Nats still have some ways to clear space — but space is getting to be at a premium. That’s why not every deserving minor-leaguer will make it to the Show this year.