With the announced signing of “the Rhino”, setup man Brandon Kintzler, the Washington Nationals officially have 38 men on their 40-man roster. The expected signing of Matt Adams, after he and the Nats reportedly agreed to a one-year deal Wednesday, will bump the number of players on the roster to 39.
Now, there is no guarantee there are any more moves made on the major league side of the roster by general manager Mike Rizzo this winter. Rizzo has said he is “cool with [Pedro] Severino” as the primary backup to catcher Matt Wieters, who is expected to cede a sizable chunk of his playing time next year after enduring a miserable 2017 campaign. He has also talked up young starting pitchers A.J. Cole and Erick Fedde as options to fill the open fifth spot in the Nats’ rotation, while reportedly signing former Nats prospect Tommy Milone to a minor league deal as another back-end option.
If the Nats do make more moves, though, how could that affect the rest of the roster?
Trading from the major league roster
This might be the likeliest way we see space cleared up on the 40-man roster this winter. The Nats aren’t considered likely to trade any of their major league players, but it’s certainly possible they will seek to capitalize on standout years from role players like Wilmer Difo, Brian Goodwin, or Michael A. Taylor to swing a trade without drawing from their positional “core”. The idea has been floated, even if it seems a bit far-fetched, of trading a valuable veteran like Gio Gonzalez or even Bryce Harper (read: not gonna happen) in their final year of team control.
It’s a “win-now” year for the Nats, who parted with Dusty Baker after the venerable and well-respected skipper could not steer the team past a five-game Division Series in either of his two years at the helm. New manager Dave(y) Martinez said plainly that his goal in 2018 is to win a World Series. Harper, one of the best players on the planet, is a free agent next winter; so are key cogs Gonzalez, Daniel Murphy, and Ryan Madson.
What does that mean for a trade? Well, to put it plainly: If Rizzo doesn’t see a deal he likes, he won’t do it. Taylor’s stock is up after a hot year at the plate and a Gold Glove finalist nod. But if Rizzo can’t get a player he really wants for Taylor, he’ll keep him. It’s a question of whether Taylor can be more valuable as a trade piece or as the Nats’ starting center fielder. You could say something similar about every other player on the roster.
Designating players off the roster
Unfortunately, a numbers crunch in the bullpen makes this look all but inevitable already, although it can probably be put off until the very end of Spring Training.
Making cuts is never fun for a baseball executive. It can be rough on a fanbase, too, and rankle a clubhouse. But the facts of the matter are clear: A 40-man roster can only have 40 men on it, and come Opening Day, an active roster can only have 25. And numbers like that mean some players will get left out.
The return of Kintzler means the Nats will reprise their “Law Firm” at the back of the bullpen with Kintzler, Madson, and southpaw closer Sean Doolittle. Those three players are locks for spots in the Opening Day bullpen, barring injury. Expected to slot into the remaining spots is some combination of right-handers Koda Glover, Shawn Kelley, A.J. Cole, Wander Suero, and Austin L. Adams and left-handers Sammy Solis, Enny Romero, and Matt Grace; perhaps non-roster invitees like David Goforth and Chris Smith may also be in play.
Kelley cannot be sent to the minors without his consent, while Cole, Solis, Romero, and Grace are all out of minor league options. Any one of those players would have to be designated for assignment in order to take them off the 25-man roster, which would mean their removal from the 40-man roster as well. Unless all five make the Opening Day bullpen along with Kintzler, Madson, and Doolittle, with the Nats both rolling with a short bench and leaving promising young Glover, briefly their closer before a season-ending injury this year, in the minor leagues to start the year, or Cole cracks the rotation and the other four round out the ‘pen, one or more will have to be DFA’d or placed on the disabled list (more on that in a bit).
The Nats will likely want to give their relief arms a chance to compete in Spring Training. Beyond them, there are a handful of other players who could get the axe if the Nats need to clear a roster spot or two.
- Austin Voth. He was repeatedly passed over for a major league call-up in 2016, and in 2017, he never came close to deserving one. He was demoted midway through the season to Double-A and continued to struggle there. The Nats were clearly bearish on Voth already and could decide to drop him from the roster if they need the spot. Based on his 2017 performance, it’s possible but perhaps unlikely he’d be claimed.
- Jose Marmolejos. Along with Voth, he was one of two players on the 40-man roster all season who was never called up this year, despite having a strong offensive season at Double-A. As with Voth, the Nats don’t seem high on his potential, opting to bring in Adams to replace Adam Lind in 2018 rather than letting their soon-to-be-25-year-old lefty first baseman and corner outfielder get a clear shot at a bench spot.
- Trevor Gott. He looked like a great get for the Nats when they shipped Yunel Escobar to the Los Angeles Angels for him two winters ago, but he just hasn’t panned out in the Nats organization. His numbers at Triple-A have been unspectacular, and in each of his major league call-ups, he has looked overmatched. Gott, 25, may yet end up being a capable MLB reliever, but how many more opportunities will Washington give him?
- Adrian Sanchez. One of the best stories in baseball this year, he was an out-of-nowhere addition to the roster to replace the injured Trea Turner after toiling for 10 years in the Nats’ minor league system. But while “Sanchy” earned the love of his teammates and proved he could be a contributor, he still turned in a roughly replacement-level campaign and looks ticketed for Triple-A next year. He’s likely depth and probably wouldn’t be claimed if the Nats were to DFA him, though it seems unlikely they will.
Placing players on the disabled list
Major League Baseball has two principal disabled lists: the 10-day DL and the 60-day DL. They work in different ways, as players on the 10-day DL are temporarily removed from the active roster while remaining on the 40-man roster, while players on the 60-day DL are temporarily removed from both. (Technically, there is a third, 7-day disabled list, but it’s only for players with concussion symptoms, so we will ignore it here.)
This is an important distinction. The Nats can place a player on the DL to start the season, but a player can’t go on the DL during the off-season. That means Joe Ross, recovering from “Tommy John” surgery done in July, is on the roster right now even though he will certainly begin the 2018 season on the DL, and likely the 60-day DL at that. Daniel Murphy may start the year on the 10-day DL if he’s unable to participate fully in Spring Training as he rehabs from off-season knee surgery. Shawn Kelley, who suffered a season-ending elbow injury in September, could also be limited during Spring Training if his recurring arm trouble flares up again.
In practice, what this means is the Nats will have a free open spot on their roster to start the season, which means there is a ready-made opportunity for a non-roster invitee to win a spot out of Spring Training, or for a castoff from another team to be snapped up on a major league deal. The Nats ended up promoting no fewer than four of their non-roster invitees (Jeremy Guthrie, Matt Albers, Grant Green, and Jacob Turner) to the major league roster in April alone this year. In 2016, they brought Matt Belisle and Chris Heisey north with them from Florida. In 2015, they gave spots to Clint Robinson and Dan Uggla while also snagging Reed Johnson upon his release by the Miami Marlins. All that is to say: There’s a very significant chance a non-roster invitee makes the 2018 team either by or not long after Opening Day.
However, the flip side of this is that any more off-season transactions will have to be made without the benefit of being able to clear a spot by putting Ross on the DL now. His DL placement at the start of the season will clear space, but it can’t be done until then, so if the Nats go and acquire two more major league players this winter after officially signing Adams, they will have to clear space by another means.