Who the heck is that guy? — 2018 edition! A guide to #Nats non-roster pitchers

At long last, the Washington Nationals have announced who will be suiting up in red and white for the team’s second major league spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida. Along with 39 players on the major league roster (Joe Ross, rehabbing from “Tommy John” surgery, won’t be participating in Grapefruit League action this year), 21 non-roster invitees have been named to the springtime Nats.

In this post, we’ll be looking exclusively at pitchers. That means analyses of non-roster catcher Miguel Montero, non-roster infielder Reid Brignac, and other position players will have to wait. This post also deals exclusively with pitchers who are not on the 40-man roster. While Austin Voth, Wander Suero, and Jefry Rodriguez have yet to take a major league mound, they are nonetheless rostered players, so they don’t technically count as NRIs.

Pitchers and catchers report February 14. For those of you keeping track at home: That’s today!!! While it will be another week or so before the Grapefruit League gets going, we’ve already heard from new manager Dave Martinez about what he expects from his players:

“You know, I knew nothing but work as a player.  I grinded every day out and tried to be the best I could be. And I expect that for all my players. We’re going to compete, compete at the highest level every day.”  Davey Martinez

With that, let’s get to it.

#40 Edwin Jackson

2017 stats (minors): 1.77 ERA, 40⅔ IP, 1.21 WHIP, 1.95 K/BB
2017 stats (majors): 5.21 ERA, 76 IP, 1.51 WHIP, 2.07 K/BB

Edwin Jackson returns to the Nats for another go-’round. Part of the rotation during the 2012 season, Jackson was then signed to a three-year contract by the Chicago Cubs but finished the 2015 season with the Atlanta Braves. He split time in 2016 between the Miami Marlins and the San Diego Padres and then started 2017 with the Baltimore Orioles before he was released and then latched on with the Nats for another stint, sticking in the rotation for the entire second half of the season and making 13 starts for Washington.

The 34-year-old Jackson is an enigma. The right-hander has always shown good velocity on his fastball, which flashed in the upper 90s last year with the Nats, but he’s never actually struck out many batters, and he has grappled with command problems at times during his career. He seems to have the tools it takes to be a successful major league pitcher, but he has bounced from organization to organization and recently between the minor and major leagues, never cementing a place for himself anywhere. He was the Nats’ fifth starter (and at times, their fourth starter) for the whole back half of the 2017 season, looking for stretches like he had finally achieved his full potential at age 33. But gravity won out. Jackson skidded badly in September, giving up an awful 24 earned runs in 22 innings while allowing a .323/1.062 slash line against, and was left off the playoff roster.

Jackson’s new deal with the Nats is incentive-laden and guarantees him $1.5 million if he makes the team. It also presumably allows him to opt out if he doesn’t make the team. It’s likely he will enter spring training as one of three major contenders for the fifth rotation spot, along with A.J. Cole (the going-away favorite, if general manager Mike Rizzo is to be believed) and Erick Fedde. He could perhaps be considered as a long reliever in the bullpen if Cole wins the starting job as expected. He could also be the “first man up” at Triple-A Syracuse if he accepts an assignment to the minors, similar to Jacob Turner‘s role in 2017.

#46 Tommy Milone

2017 stats (minors): 5.40 ERA, 21⅔ IP, 1.43 WHIP, 4.67 K/BB
2017 stats (majors): 7.63 ERA, 48⅓ IP, 1.63 WHIP, 2.71 K/BB

Former Nats farmhand Tommy Milone is back in the fold. But it’s been a long past few years for Milone since general manager Mike Rizzo fenced him to the Oakland Athletics as part of the package that brought back Gio Gonzalez in 2012, and the 31-year-old southpaw never really fulfilled his promise as a young Nats pitching prospect.

For his career, Milone’s major league numbers aren’t bad: He owns a winning record at 45-36, for whatever that’s worth, with a 4.37 ERA and 1.34 WHIP that are certainly passable for a fifth starter. But the story more recently has been dire, as he “boasts” a 6.50 ERA and 1.57 WHIP over 117⅔ innings in his past two seasons with the Minnesota Twins, Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets. It seems more instructive to look at his recent results than his successful age-24 and age-25 seasons, although he was competent with a 3.92 ERA and 1.28 WHIP as recently as 2015 for Minnesota.

Milone is unlikely to find a major league deal anywhere if he doesn’t stick in the Nats organization in 2018. While he could possibly opt out of his minor league contract, depending on how it is structured, if he doesn’t make the team out of spring training, Rizzo’s plan might be to stash him at Syracuse the way he did Jacob Turner last season, bringing him up as a temporary addition to the major league rotation if there are injuries. Considering his recent results, he would have to dazzle in spring training to go north with the Nats, and even then — considering the Jeremy Guthrie debacle last April — Rizzo might think better of the notion.

#58 Cesar Vargas

2017 stats (minors): 5.50 ERA, 68⅔ IP, 1.53 WHIP, 2.05 K/BB
2017 stats (majors): N/A

It’s tough to know exactly what to make of Cesar Vargas. The 26-year-old right-hander has always been a strikeout artist, but he’s also struggled with control issues. You’d normally expect a pitcher with his stuff and youth to be considered a top young talent, but instead, he’s bounced around, never reaching the majors with the team that originally signed him — the New York Yankees — and spending just a couple of years in the San Diego Padres organization before being scooped up by Washington this winter. While he racks up his fair share of Ks, he’s not a flamethrower, with a high-80s cut fastball as his bread-and-butter pitch complimented by a changeup and slider.

Briefly a starter for the Padres, Vargas made seven starts in 2016, pitching to a not-very-good 5.03 ERA with pretty poor peripherals, like a 1.65 WHIP and a 1.87 K/BB, and losing all three of his decisions. His season ended in late May due to an elbow injury, and he was outrighted to the minors the following spring. In general, Vargas really hasn’t fared well above Double-A, although he’s only logged a grand total of 16⅔ career innings at Triple-A (divided between three games with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders of the International League in 2015 and ten games with the El Paso Chihuahuas of the Pacific Coast League in 2017). So, chalk one up for shoddy player development, if you want to be generous.

Vargas amassed an outstanding 10.2 K/9 rate between the Texas and Pacific Coast leagues in 2017, and that’s roughly in line with his career numbers. His 5.0 BB/9 on the year is garish, but it’s clearly inflated by that appalling ten-game stint (19 earned runs in 11⅓ innings!) with Triple-A El Paso; at the Double-A level, his walk rate was a more acceptable 3.9 BB/9. It’s hard to know what happened for Vargas when he was wearing a Chihuahuas jersey. Maybe he just didn’t like that little dog. After he was busted back down to Double-A San Antonio in July, after about a month in Triple-A, he had a couple more rough outings that summer but mostly calmed down, pitching to a 4.79 ERA for the remainder of the season — that probably looks worse than it is, considering a really unfortunate .392 BABIP against, not to mention the fact the Texas League is extremely hitter-friendly. So maybe that’s really where Vargas belongs: Double-A, or perhaps Triple-A in the more pitcher-friendly International League. He’ll get a chance in spring training, but he looks like a long shot from here.

#59 David Goforth

2017 stats (minors): 3.98 ERA, 54⅓ IP, 1.53 WHIP, 1.46 K/BB
2017 stats (majors): 0.00 ERA, 1 IP, 1.00 WHIP, 0.00 K/BB

At first glance, there’s not much to say about David Goforth. He’s 29, a right-handed reliever, with a limited and profoundly unimpressive major league resume (5.94 ERA over 36⅓ innings, with a 1.73 WHIP) and a season in Triple-A last year that isn’t going to turn any heads. But first impressions might be unfair. Goforth was saddled with an assignment for most of 2017 pitching for the Colorado Springs SkySox, who play half their games in one of the most hitter-friendly stadiums in professional baseball and compete in the famously hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.

Goforth has never enjoyed much success in parts of three major league seasons. But his career numbers are inflated by a horrific 2016 stint with the Brewers. And he has spent his entire professional career in the Brewers organization, suggesting that he could be a change-of-scenery candidate who simply hasn’t been given the tutelage and experience he needs to reach that next level in his game.

That being said, it’s hard to project Goforth for greatness, and that’s mostly because he has two big problems: He walks a lot of batters, and he doesn’t strike many batters out. His career walk rate across all minor league levels is 4.0 BB/9. His career strikeout rate in the minors is 6.5 K/9. Those numbers are better in his limited major league showings, and it’s clear that his time with the SkySox has inflated that walk rate and deflated that strikeout rate, but even a 2.54 K/BB — which isn’t terrible — isn’t going to get you many places when you’re also as hittable as Goforth. He looks likely to serve as minor league relief depth for the Nats in 2018. Still, his major league experience could make him a dark horse for a roster spot if he turns in a spring training showing that suggests all his problems lie west of the Appalachian Range.

#48 Chris Smith

2017 stats (minors): 4.33 ERA, 35⅓ IP, 1.19 WHIP, 4.33 K/BB
2017 stats (majors): 5.40 ERA, 5 IP, 1.60 WHIP, 1.00 K/BB

Now here’s an interesting name, although not because “Chris Smith” is in any way an interesting name. Smith, now 29, went undrafted out of high school and college and started his professional career in independent ball, before the New York Yankees signed him in 2013. Then Smith broke his arm and missed that entire season, finally debuting in affiliated ball in the Yankees organization in 2014. He was released the following year after struggling at the Double-A level and snapped up by the rival Toronto Blue Jays, who developed Smith and gave him his major league debut in 2017. How’s that for a great baseball story?

Of course, Smith’s story doesn’t end there. The Blue Jays summarily DFA’d him and he became a free agent at the end of the season before signing on with the Nats as a minor league free agent. The next chapter has yet to be written. But if Smith can parlay a fine (if incomplete) year in the minor leagues undimmed by a long-awaited major league debut in which he didn’t do so well — and it’s worth noting here that he actually turned in three scoreless relief appearances, before getting shelled coming into a fourth game in which the Jays already trailed by two runs — into another shot at major league glory, that would extend his fairy-tale run.

In terms of his profile, Smith has a mid-90s fastball and an effective slider. That stuff has played well during his career, although there was a curious drop-off in 2017. Smith has historically struck out more than a batter per inning in the minors, with a 9.6 K/9 rate for his career across all levels and a very impressive 12 K/9 across 57 innings at the Double-A level in 2016, although that rate regressed to a decidedly more pedestrian 6.3 K/9 at the Triple-A level in 2017. Who is the real Chris Smith? The Nats will have a chance to find out this spring.

#53 Roman Mendez

2017 stats (minors): N/A
2017 stats (majors): N/A
2017 stats (NPB): 6.52 ERA, 9⅔ IP, 1.55 WHIP, 3.00 K/BB

One of the more unusual signings for the Nats’ Mike Rizzo in recent memory, the 27-year-old Dominican right-hander Roman Mendez bombed out of Japanese ball last year after less than 10 innings. While Mendez continued to demonstrate a fairly high strikeout rate (8.4 K/9) and an acceptable walk rate (2.8 BB/9) that have been hallmarks for him throughout his minor league career, Nippon Professional Baseball hitters teed off on him to the tune of 11.2 hits per nine innings. Mendez only appeared in eight games for the Hanshin Tigers, so this is too small a sample size for us to draw any meaningful conclusions. But, of course, aside from a campaign in Dominican winter ball, that was his only professional play in 2017.

Stateside, Mendez most recently belonged to the Boston Red Sox organization. He was effective in 64 innings for Triple-A Pawtucket in 2016, pitching mostly in long relief (he averaged two innings per game while making no starts) and amassing a 3.38 ERA with solid, if unspectacular, peripherals (1.19 WHIP, 2.19 K/BB). He has a grand total of 46⅔ career innings in the majors, appearing mostly for the Texas Rangers, with a nice 3.09 ERA and an OK 1.26 WHIP, but a significantly less attractive 1.28 K/BB. He hasn’t been to the bigs since 2015, where he showed a mid-90s fastball with a mid-80s slider.

Mendez is a long shot for a lot of reasons. He will likely have some rust to shake off after not pitching much last year. He’s showed decently in the upper minors and briefly in the majors, but he hasn’t had as much success limiting traffic on the basepaths above the Double-A level. And, of course, he’s a minor league signing who will be competing not only with fellow non-roster invitees to Nationals spring training but with a few rostered pitchers who will be trying their hardest to make the team. Due to his relative youth and major league experience, he’s worth keeping an eye on, but his case would be considerably stronger if his 2017 weren’t essentially a lost year.

#60 Ismael Guillon

2017 stats (minors): 4.52 ERA, 69⅔ IP, 1.74 WHIP, 1.65 K/BB
2017 stats (majors): N/A

Another in the genre of twenty-something pitchers who have a lot of strikeouts and a lot of walks to their name, but not much else to show, Ismael Guillon’s 26th birthday was the same day the Nationals announced him as a non-roster invitee, February 13. Guillon joins the Nats after eight years in the Cincinnati Reds farm system (although he missed all of the 2015 season after tearing a latissimus muscle during spring training). After a strong comeback year in 2016 as a reliever, he finally graduated from the A-ball ranks and…well, 2017 in the high minors was definitely a bit of a struggle.

Guillon hasn’t had a major league debut yet, and didn’t spend long on the Reds’ 40-man roster before Cincinnati outrighted him to clear space for Burke Badenhop in early 2015. (Badenhop would go on to sign a minors deal with the Nats and be invited to spring training in 2016, but he didn’t impress in Viera and ended up being passed over in favor of fellow non-roster invitee and former Red Matt Belisle that year.) The timing just wasn’t good for Guillon, with his demotion from the 40-man followed swiftly by his season-ending injury, just as he preparing to enter his age-23 season. He looked like a raw but potentially interesting young prospect more or less on track, but now he’s a 26-year-old who hasn’t been able to establish himself above A-ball and will be fighting an uphill battle for consideration as a non-roster invitee in a new organization.

There’s not much else to dissect with regard to Guillon. He’s rather reminiscent of Nick Lee, another high-strikeout, high-walk lefty reliever who lost a season to a spring training injury (and is nowhere to be seen on this year’s list of Nats non-roster invitees). He figures to be well behind the Nats’ current slate of rostered lefties as well as more established non-roster southpaws like Tim Collins, Tommy Milone, and Bryan Harper on the depth chart, unless he can really surprise.

#67 Jaron Long

2017 stats (minors): 3.61 ERA, 164⅓ IP, 1.21 WHIP, 3.68 K/BB
2017 stats (majors): N/A

Cursed or blessed, depending on your point of view, with the destiny of being described as “son of Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long” in every single news article or blog post that mentions his name, 26-year-old right-handed starter Jaron Long is actually fairly interesting in his own right. Never listed among the Nats’ top prospects — publicly available scouting reports aren’t particularly favorable toward him — he has nonetheless quietly amassed quality numbers since joining the Nats in 2016. (He previously played in the New York Yankees organization, never reaching the majors.)

For Long, it was undoubtedly a no-brainer to re-sign with the Nats on a minors deal with an invitation to major league spring training after Dad was named new manager Dave Martinez’s hitting coach. After all, he’s done well in the organization, splitting each of his two seasons about evenly between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse and putting up a combined 3.45 ERA. He’s not a big strikeout guy, but he takes care to stay in the zone and avoid free passes, with a really great 1.7 BB/9 for his minor league career, making for a good strikeouts-to-walks ratio.

The cynic’s take is that Long is in major league camp for the first time because of his family connection. That might be true, but then again, he’s got a decent argument that he earned his way there. His numbers in Triple-A haven’t been as strong as his Double-A numbers, with a career 4.56 ERA and 1.43 WHIP at the higher level, but he’s shown improvement at limiting baserunners over the past three seasons, and his 4.43 ERA as a Chief last year was considerably influenced by an aberrant home run rate (1.4 HR/9, twice his career rate). The best argument he could make, though, is to pitch like he belongs and give the Nats brass something to think about. The extreme upside for him would be challenging Syracuse rotation-mate A.J. Cole, whom he outpitched last year at Triple-A, for the fifth starter spot.

#56 Brady Dragmire

2017 stats (minors): 4.26 ERA, 82⅓ IP, 1.60 WHIP, 1.08 K/BB
2017 stats (majors): N/A

Every winter, it seems there is at least one fringe player who pinballs from organization to organization, repeatedly getting claimed off waivers, traded for cash considerations, and then getting claimed off waivers again. Last winter, it was poor Brady Dragmire, who zinged from the Toronto Blue Jays (ironically, he was first outrighted to clear roster space for Chris Smith, with whom he will share a locker room in West Palm Beach this spring) to the Pittsburgh Pirates, then to the Texas Rangers, then back to Pittsburgh, then back to Texas, where he finally cleared waivers and opened the year at Triple-A Round Rock before being released in June and scooped up by the Nats, who sent him to Double-A Harrisburg.

Dragmire turned 25 earlier this month, so he has youth on his side. But he doesn’t have much else. He’s a textbook example of a pitcher whose topline results just don’t tell a complete story, as while the 3.13 ERA he recorded in 46 innings as a swingman for the Senators last year was really quite good, it came in spite of a dismal 1.61 WHIP and a shockingly bad one-to-one ratio of strikeouts to walks (21 each). The coincidence of having exactly as many strikeouts as walks might be a fluke, but the overall tendency is not; Dragmire has the unfortunate combination of striking out extremely few batters and walking a whole bunch. He’s never had a season in which his walks actually exceeded strikeouts, but above A-ball, it’s been awfully close.

With most of these non-roster pitchers, you can see why the Nats took a chance on promising them a few innings of work in the Grapefruit League, even if you have to squint a bit. That’s not really apparent with Dragmire, other than perhaps to reward him for signing with the Nats after what had been a very discouraging start to 2017 and then putting up a good ERA with a 5-1 record at Double-A. He doesn’t seem to have any real prospect of breaking camp with the Nats, but perhaps he can pick up some tips from pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and his spring teammates and hope to find a formula for repeated success in 2018.

#52 Jimmy Cordero

2017 stats (minors): 6.84 ERA, 51⅓ IP, 1.75 WHIP, 1.05 K/BB
2017 stats (majors): N/A

Young fireballer Jimmy Cordero represented one of a handful of low-stakes moves that general manager Mike Rizzo made before the 2017 season, as he acquired the right-hander from the division-rival Philadelphia Phillies for an obscure prospect and then stashed him at Double-A as relief depth. Some of Rizzo’s low-stakes additions ended up working out — Enny Romero, acquired via trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, became a key cog in then-manager Dusty Baker‘s bullpen, comes to mind, as does non-roster invitee Matt Albers, who was worth 2.5 wins above replacement in Baseball-Reference’s reckoning and earned a two-year majors pact with the Milwaukee Brewers this winter — and others — like catcher Derek Norris, added in another small trade with the San Diego Padres but ultimately released during spring training, weeks before he was publicly accused of domestic assault — did not. Cordero was one of the latter, pitching horrendously for Double-A Harrisburg, losing his roster spot at the trade deadline, and never making it up to The Show.

Cordero, now 26, is incredibly frustrating for a prospect-watcher. He can gas his fastball up into triple digits and will occasionally have outings in which he is simply untouchable, but much of the time, he seems to have no idea where his pitches are going.

Despite his dreadful season for the Senators, Cordero still seems to have some fans. He was selected to the Arizona Fall League last year and contributed 12 innings of 1.50 ERA ball, diligently working to limit walks and only, in fact, issuing two. It might just be a courtesy by the Nats to bring Cordero back for spring training after outrighting him from the roster last year, but on the other hand, management might see his fall performance as a sign of progress, something to build on for an intriguing arm who has simply never put it together. He’s extremely unlikely to make the Opening Day roster, but a good spring showing could at least put him back on the radar.

#55 Tim Collins

Tim Collins

2017 stats (minors): 7.79 ERA, 17⅓ IP, 1.79 WHIP, 1.64 K/BB
2017 stats (majors): N/A

It’s been a difficult few years for “Tiny” Tim Collins, a 5′ 7” left-hander who pitched for the Kansas City Royals during their Cinderella run to the 2014 World Series, only to be forced to watch from the sidelines as they won it all in 2015. Collins blew out his elbow in spring training in 2015 and required “Tommy John” surgery to replace his ulnar collateral ligament, but as he prepared to return to action in 2016, examinations revealed the graft hadn’t taken and he underwent the procedure again. Although he signed a deal with the Nats ahead of the 2017 season that included an invitation to major league spring training, he didn’t end up taking the field until midway through the season.

Collins really did start his comeback tour well, breezing through six games at the Nats’ Gulf Coast League affiliate and then pitching a couple of scoreless, hitless innings for High-A Potomac. But when it came time to face more advanced hitting at Double-A, Collins imploded, pitching to a ghastly 14.54 ERA in ten games of relief. In spite of that finish, though, Collins is right back with the Nats in 2018, (apparently) ready for another go.

It’s tough to give up on Collins, because he delivered solid, workmanlike results for the Royals as a major league reliever from 2011 to 2014. He broke into the bigs at age 21, and for a few years, it looked like the world was his oyster, as despite his small stature, he pitched effectively to a 3.54 career ERA in the majors and even pitched in the World Series, which not every 25-year-old gets to say he has done. But after two missed seasons and a partial season last year that went very wrong, it’s probably time to face the fact that this scrappy 28-year-old might not make it all the way back. Not everyone does. But it’s worth watching him a little longer to see if he can. After all, why not?

#39 Bryan Harper

Bryan Harper

2017 stats (minors): N/A
2017 stats (majors): N/A

Also from the Department of Why Not?, there’s 28-year-old lefty Bryan Harper. Dismissed as a nepotism pick (you might know his younger brother, Bryce) after the Nats took him in the 30th round of the 2011 draft, Harper worked tirelessly to prove the critics wrong, and he was on the cusp of a major league call-up in 2016 when the ulnar collateral ligament in his left arm snapped and he was forced to undergo “Tommy John” surgery. He missed all of 2017, getting in some rehab time in West Palm Beach alongside former Triple-A Syracuse teammates Koda Glover and Aaron Barrett but never being activated from the disabled list.

Aside from his family name, Harper is interesting because prior to his UCL tear, he was astonishingly effective against left-handed hitting. While amassing a 2.18 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A in 2016, an improvement over a still-nice 2.96 ERA across those levels in 2015, Harper held lefties to a miniscule .125/.383 slash line. He only really had one “bad game” all year in 2016, when Syracuse’s then-manager Billy Gardner Jr. made the ill-advised decision to try to get two innings out of Harper — usually a single-frame reliever — while short-handed due to a doubleheader, and the southpaw gave up a walkoff grand slam while trying to get the final out of the inning. In no other game did Harper surrender more than a single earned run.

It’s easy to imagine an alternate reality in which dogs purr and cats play fetch, people say “goodbye” instead of “hello” and “hello” instead of “goodbye,” and Bryan Harper was the Nats’ go-to up-and-down lefty in 2017 instead of Matt Grace. But here we are in 2018, and Harper has made it to major league spring training for the first time in his career, and what could be his last time wearing the same colors as his brother. After a missed 2017, it remains to be seen how fully Harper can and will participate in camp, but the Nats will certainly be watching him this spring and beyond to see whether he can recapture the form that had him so tantalizingly close to a major league debut a year and a half ago. He is a wild card in the team’s bullpen picture — maybe not for Opening Day, but potentially for later in the season.

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