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

As the Washington Nationals players trickle into West Palm Beach for spring training camp, there will be a few faces on the position-player side who may be unfamiliar to baseball fans. A few are minor league fixtures for the Nats, a couple of whom have been here before. Others come from outside the organization to pursue opportunities created by some off-season drama involving a bum knee and a Boldenone injection.

In this post, we’ll be looking only at position players. If you’re curious to learn more about the likes of Edwin Jackson, Tommy Milone, Bryan Harper, and Tim Collins, good news: non-roster pitchers were the subject of a previous post. Likewise, this list is limited to non-roster players. Kelvin Gutierrez and Jose Marmolejos are still waiting to make their major league debuts, but they are on the 40-man roster, so you won’t find them in this post.

Pitchers and catchers reported Wednesday, so at least a few of these guys are already in West Palm Beach for camp (or, at least, they should be). Grapefruit League action begins next week.

Here’s a few guys you might not recognize who will be participating for the Nats.

#17 Reid Brignac

2017 stats (minors): .251 AVG, .737 OPS, 13 HR, 4/5 SB, 0.35 BB/K
2017 stats (majors): N/A

The Nats are familiar with 32-year-old utility infielder Reid Brignac from his tour of the National League East, when he played 37 games with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2014, 17 games with the Miami Marlins in 2015, and 13 games with the Atlanta Braves in 2016. But they certainly didn’t see much from his bat at the major league level to impress them. Nevertheless, the versatile left-handed swinger — who has rated very well at the shortstop position during his career — is getting a shot with his fourth NL East team, with the Nats snagging the 2004 second-round draft pick and former consensus top-20 prospect on a split deal this winter.

Brignac had a couple decent years with the Tampa Bay Rays, who originally drafted him, but by his age-25 season, he was all used up. Since 2011, Brignac has owned an awful .190/.477 slash line with just three home runs and four stolen bases in 221 games. His last major league homer came in 2014. It was at Citizens Bank Park. While Brignac has fared somewhat better in the minors, hitting well enough (especially when coupled with his slick fielding) to stick at the Triple-A level, the fact remains he is simply not a very good offensive player. (Interestingly enough, he converted to hitting right-handed against lefty pitchers just last spring, but he actually ended up hitting better left-handed against lefties…than he did hitting left-handed against righties, with a .270/.854 line left-on-left for Triple-A Fresno and a .267/.790 line left-on-right, plus a dire .148/.341 right-on-left. No word on whether that switch-hitting experiment will continue, but it probably shouldn’t.)

At least Brignac knows his way around The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, having spent 2017 in the Houston Astros organization, and at least he’s a good defender with experience at second base, third base, and shortstop. He figures to represent one of the Nats’ infield depth options in case second baseman Daniel Murphy, recuperating from off-season knee surgery, is not ready for Opening Day or the club opts to carry an extra bench infielder into the early part of the season to keep Murphy’s workload light. He’ll likely compete more with Matt Reynolds and fellow non-roster invitees to be that depth option than he will with utilitymen Wilmer Difo, who performed well enough last year as a fill-in player that his spot on the bench is likely guaranteed, and Howie Kendrick, who signed a two-year guaranteed major league contract to return to Washington last month.

#61 Chris Dominguez

2017 stats (minors): .284 AVG, .766 OPS, 11 HR, 12/14 SB, 0.11 BB/K
2017 stats (majors): N/A

The Chicago Cubs stashed utilityman Chris Dominguez at Triple-A for all of 2017. A depth option for a team that somehow stayed healthy all season en route to ending the Nats’ playoff dreams in the National League Division Series, Dominguez wasn’t ever called up. Now 31, the right-handed swinger has moved on to his fifth team in five years and will hope to return to the majors for the first time since a 14-game stint with the Cincinnati Reds in 2015.

Dominguez had a pretty good year with Triple-A Iowa last year, perhaps benefiting from being back in a more hitter-friendly league (the Pacific Coast League) after putting up rather uninteresting batting lines in the International League the previous two years. (Extremely similar offensive numbers for Triple-A Fresno when he was in the San Francisco Giants organization in 2013 and 2014 would seem to bear this notion out.) The big hole in his game, though, is his on-base percentage. He just…doesn’t…walk. He walked 11 times in 2017, after walking 11 times in 2016, after walking 16 times in 2015 (all at Triple-A).

Back in 2015, aside from striking out 12 times and walking zero times, Dominguez did OK in his cup of coffee with the Reds, hitting .261/.783. His career major league numbers in 22 games are paltry, though, at .175/.595. He’s pretty much a corner bat, capable of playing first base, third base, left field, and right field, and while Dominguez isn’t a terrible hitter, he’s not really a particularly good one either, and that’s a problem when you are limited to playing what are generally considered to be premium offensive positions. He’s not a great defender, either. As it stands, there’s really nothing he can do that Kendrick can’t do better, and he pretty much looks like a right-handed-hitting replacement for departed Triple-A stalwart Matt Skole if he stays in the Nationals organization.

#63 Osvaldo Abreu

2017 stats (minors): .246 AVG, .636 OPS, 5 HR, 1/7 SB, 0.25 BB/K
2017 stats (majors): N/A

At one point, and it wasn’t even that long ago, Osvaldo Abreu was considered one of the Nats’ more notable infield prospects. But it’s been a couple years and a couple levels since the 23-year-old showed much with the bat, and he was left unprotected (and unclaimed) in this winter’s Rule 5 draft. He spent all of 2017 at Double-A Harrisburg, definitely not showing enough to suggest he has mastered the level.

Back in 2015, Abreu turned some heads with a stellar age-21 season for Low-A Hagerstown, hitting .274/.769 while playing shortstop and second base. Since then, it’s pretty much just been Abreu’s steady presence at short, a premium defensive position, that has kept him progressing through the farm system. After a mediocre .247/.674 showing at High-A Potomac in 2016, Abreu nonetheless made the jump to Double-A in 2017, where he put up the uninspiring statline you see above. Curiously, Abreu swiped 18 bases in 2016 and 30 in 2015, but in 2017, he was utterly hopeless on the basepaths, being caught six times for one successful attempt in 125 games. That one is a head-scratcher.

The biggest value in bringing Abreu to major league camp this spring might simply be to soothe an ego that might have been bruised by seeing 2017 teammates Kelvin Gutierrez and Victor Robles promoted to the 40-man roster while Abreu was left off. Or Nats brass might want a better look at his game to determine whether he can be considered viable middle infield depth, particularly after they had to venture way down the organizational depth chart to pluck Adrian Sanchez from the minors last summer. Either way, Abreu has even less chance than Gutierrez of making the Opening Day roster, but he could make the most of this brief opportunity to put himself back on the club’s radar.

#18 Ryan Raburn

2017 stats (minors): .274 AVG, .833 OPS, 4 HR, 1/1 SB, 0.53 BB/K
2017 stats (majors): .262 AVG, .735 OPS, 2 HR, 0/1 SB, 0.16 BB/K

The Nats lost the services of left fielder Ryan Raburn midway through the 2017 season due to a season-ending trapezius injury, just weeks after calling him up from Triple-A to replace the injured Jayson Werth on the roster. But he was the first of several free agent players the team signed back over the winter, as the 36-year-old veteran inked a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. And why not? Raburn had some good moments for the Nats in his 25 games, including an improbable two of his career 13 major league triples, and he could end up serving as veteran bench depth if he sticks in the organization.

Raburn was traded from the Chicago White Sox to the Nats during the season last year and ended up in the majors not long thereafter. A solid if underpowered bat at the Triple-A level, Raburn has long since lost the punch he showed in his 20s and early 30s, but he has shown contact skills at times. The really weird thing about Raburn is how consistently inconsistent he has been, going from an awful 2014 in which he hit .200/.547 in 74 games for the Cleveland Indians to a fantastic 2015 when they gave him another chance, hitting .301/.936 in 82 games and sticking all year in the majors, and then falling apart with the Colorado Rockies in 2016, hitting just .220/.712. The phenomenon stretches all the way back to the start of Raburn’s career, as he has consistently performed much better in odd-numbered years (.278 average with 60 home runs in the major leagues) than even-numbered years (.227 average with 33 home runs, same level). I mean, how do you explain that?

Raburn turns 37 in April and he’s clearly coming up on the twilight of his career; it’s hard to know how long he’ll keep at it if the Nats don’t put him on the roster or give him some sort of guarantee that he’ll come up again later this season. But in 2018, he’s going to try again to break that even-numbered curse, and the Nats will be glad to have the easygoing veteran in the spring clubhouse and out on the practice fields. He figures to represent proven, if low-upside, right-handed corner outfield depth in case of an injury.

#49 Moises Sierra

2017 stats (minors): .294 AVG, .799 OPS, 11 HR, 18/21 SB, 0.48 BB/K
2017 stats (majors): N/A

A onetime top prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays system, Moises Sierra is one of many such talents who tantalized but never really seemed to live up to his potential. It’s not fair to say that Sierra was a total bust, as he managed to contribute in parts of three major league seasons, but with a career line of .243/.679 with just nine home runs in 180 major league games, and no major league appearances since 2014, it’s fair to say that Sierra was at least a fizzle. After spending 2017 with the Miami Marlins’ Triple-A affiliate in New Orleans, Sierra is with the division-rival Nats on a minor league deal this spring.

Sierra has been a fine player over his past three seasons in the minors, albeit in hitter-friendly leagues. He’s seemed to develop a little more power after being a right-handed Ben Revere-type bat (.289/.712) for Triple-A Omaha in the Kansas City Royals system in 2015, mustering a very good .336/.932 line with the Marlins’ Double-A team in 2016 and then enjoying a solid year as a Babycake. Always more of a corner outfield prospect than a center fielder, Sierra has moved to left and right fields altogether in recent years, which does limit his utility as a depth piece for an organization like the Nats that is rich in young outfielders.

Probably the best-case scenario for Sierra is that the Nats trade away starting center fielder Michael A. Taylor before Opening Day and then decide to give the older, more experienced Sierra a shot at the bench job, rather than sacrificing a year of control they would gain by keeping top prospect Victor Robles in the minors for a few weeks longer or taking a gamble on light-hitting speedsters Andrew Stevenson and Rafael Bautista, who looked totally overmatched by major league pitching during call-ups in 2017. Sierra would slot into the bench, with a platoon of Brian Goodwin and Howie Kendrick likely filling the third outfield position, and the Nats would scrape by without a particularly good defensive option in center field for a little while until Robles can be called up. But if the Nats don’t trade Taylor, and none of their rostered outfielders are injured seriously enough to miss significant time, it’s tough to project a path to the Opening Day roster for Sierra. He looks likely to serve as emergency depth at Triple-A Syracuse in 2018.

#14 Miguel Montero

2017 stats (minors): .000 AVG, .000 OPS, 0 HR, 0/0 SB, 0.00 BB/K
2017 stats (majors): .216 AVG, .656 OPS, 6 HR, 1/1 SB, 0.49 BB/K

It was a tale of two seasons last year for catcher Miguel Montero. Despite a three-year run in the Chicago Cubs organization and a .286/.805 slash line to that point in the season, Montero was unceremoniously jettisoned by the Cubs after complaining to the media about how slow pitcher Jake Arrieta was to the plate and how unfair it was that he was blamed for successful steals after (ironically) the Nats went 7-for-7 in stolen bases against him in a game, with manager Joe Maddon and teammate Anthony Rizzo criticizing him for being a bad teammate. (For what it’s worth, Montero publicly apologized and Arrieta publicly forgave him.) The Toronto Blue Jays then decided to give Montero a whirl, and he completely bombed, managing just .138/.489 in nearly the same sample size down the stretch. A free agent this winter, Montero couldn’t find work on a major league roster and settled for an incentive-laden split deal with the Nats, where he has at least a puncher’s chance at an Opening Day bench spot.

It’s actually instructive to note that reports unanimously state the 34-year-old Montero is in competition with 24-year-old Pedro Severino for a bench spot, rather than with Matt Wieters for the starting job. That clarification is valuable because, in addition to Wieters’ .225/.632 slash line last year, Montero is a rare left-hitting catcher who has historically been much better against right-handed pitching, while Wieters is a switch-hitter who is markedly better against left-handed pitching. In theory, then, a straight platoon based on the handedness of the opposing starting pitcher would have Montero on the long side and Wieters on the short side. But unless these reports are a head fake by the Nats, that isn’t something team officials envision happening.

Montero really has something of a shot with the Nats because of Severino’s bat. Severino struggled to a .243/.623 line at Triple-A around a stint on the disabled list, and in the majors, he did a good Montero-in-Toronto impersonation with a .172/.433 line in 17 games. But for Montero to win out in this spring competition, he will have to show that his horrid performance as a Blue Jay was a fluke — and that he has sincerely learned from his mistake of bashing a batterymate to the press. Showing some improvement at throwing out attempted base-stealers would be nice, too, considering he has gunned down just twelve runners in 117 chances over the last two seasons. He makes for a fairly unimpressive contender among non-roster invitees against fairly unimpressive rostered competition, yet he’s probably the single likeliest non-roster player at spring training camp to end up heading north with the Nats when all is said and done.

#74 Taylor Gushue

2017 stats (minors): .236 AVG, .745 OPS, 18 HR, 0/0 SB, 0.47 BB/K
2017 stats (majors): N/A

Let’s get this one out of the way right now: 24-year-old Taylor Gushue is not going to be on the Nats’ Opening Day roster unless something goes very, very catastrophically wrong with the team’s stable of catchers and pinch-hitters. Gushue enjoyed a fine season between High-A and Double-A in the Washington organization last year, after being acquired in a minor trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates. But while he will endeavor to show this year that he deserves consideration as the Nats’ catcher of the future, he has played all of four games above the A-ball ranks (earning a promotion to Double-A when rosters expanded in September) and has shown nothing to suggest he is ready to face major league pitching in games that actually matter.

With all that being said, the switch-hitting Gushue forced his way onto lists of Washington’s top prospects in 2017, and he made some nice adjustments to hit for more power and improve his receiving behind the plate. He’s still raw, allowing 11 passed balls in 2017 — yes, that’s a considerable improvement from 38 passed balls over the previous two seasons in the Pirates system — and not hitting for much of an average, but scouts and analysts have taken note of some emerging tools that could end up being his ticket to The Show someday.

The Nats are nothing if not cautious in their player development with all but the most advanced prospects, and for Gushue to jump from a steady if unspectacular season at High-A into even a backup role with the big league club would come as a staggering shock in this organization. But with top catching prospect Raudy Read on the restricted list (and general manager Mike Rizzo’s s-list) due to a positive steroid test, Gushue has an interesting opportunity heading into this season to establish himself as a depth option worth considering. In the best case for Gushue, he could be called upon if the projected Opening Day platoon of Wieters and Severino falters or suffers injuries. He’s worth watching, but not because he has the remotest chance at breaking camp with the Nats this year.

#64 Spencer Kieboom

2017 stats (minors): .250 AVG, .707 OPS, 5 HR, 0/0 SB, 0.58 BB/K
2017 stats (majors): N/A

Older brother of the Nats’ top infield prospect, Carter Kieboom, Spencer Kieboom turns 27 next month and is still trying to find his way into a major league role. This just might be his year, but a number of things will have to break right for him. Even still, he has put himself in a good position with a 2017 season in which he progressed to Triple-A for the first time — and actually performed better in 47 games for Triple-A Syracuse than he did in 19 games for Double-A Harrisburg. Kieboom’s opportunity last year came when he was promoted out from behind Read, the Senators’ everyday catcher, to fill in for Severino, the Chiefs’ everyday catcher, when Severino landed on the disabled list. He proceeded to hit .275/.723, continuing to take playing time away from Severino upon the younger prospect’s return. Despite his improved performance, Kieboom did not get a major league call-up and was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, although no team picked him up.

One of the things Kieboom has been most noted for is his advanced plate discipline. To wit, he actually made his major league debut with a single pinch-hit appearance on the last day of the 2016 regular season, but he doesn’t have an official at-bat in The Show yet, because he worked a walk. He didn’t have a lot of walks in 2017, with 25, but he didn’t strike out much either, with 43. Triple-A pitching gave him more trouble than Double-A pitching did in terms of his walks-to-strikeouts ratio, but he still demonstrated he is pretty good at putting the ball in play. Defensively, Kieboom is solid, committing few errors and allowing few passed balls, but he struggled somewhat to control the running game last season, as he caught just 22% of baserunners attempting to steal.

It’s easy to cast the battle for the backup catcher spot on the Nats’ roster as a two-man race between Severino and Montero, barring another roster addition. It’s also probably the correct view. Like Gushue, Kieboom has a chance this spring to show that he can build on a breakout year in the minor leagues and serve as a depth option for the major league team while Read cools his heels on the restricted list. A spring injury could potentially put him in line for an Opening Day roster spot, but in all likelihood, that’s what it would take. Kieboom did enough last season to show the Nats that they might have been too hasty to outright him from the 40-man roster last spring. Now it’s up to him to prove they were, and to put himself in a position to finally get that official major league at-bat this year.

#66 Jhonatan Solano

2017 stats (minors): .241 AVG, .625 OPS, 2 HR, 0/0 SB, 0.43 K/BB
2017 stats (majors): N/A

Jhonatan Solano is a Colombian professional baseball catcher in the Washington Nationals organization.

Seriously, there isn’t much else to say about Solano. The 32-year-old is a perennial invite to major league spring training who knows most of the pitchers and is generally regarded as an easy catcher to work with. As in previous years, you can probably expect him to remain on the major league side of camp until shortly before the team heads north. And as in previous years, he has no chance of heading north with the team unless there are multiple injuries to the major league catchers on the spring roster. Solano simply isn’t enough of an offensive force to even hold down a position from which relatively little is expected with the bat; he hasn’t been to the majors since a seven-game tour with the Miami Marlins in 2015 in which he had one hit in 20 at-bats, and aside from an exciting two-month run with the Nats in 2013 in which he hit .314/.923 in twelve games and filled in pretty well behind the plate, he hasn’t done much at all above the minor league level. His offensive output last year was at least a step up from his 2015 and 2016 showings in Triple-A, but it’s almost completely irrelevant.

For the Nats, Solano is a veteran break-glass-in-case-of-emergency depth piece who can take some innings off the knees of actual major league catchers and prospects of note during spring training and maybe work on some stuff with some of the pitchers. His narrow path to an Opening Day roster spot is probably the following scenario: Two or more of Wieters, Severino, and Montero are injured and have to start the season on the disabled list, Kieboom falls totally flat in spring camp and is judged to be unready for a major league call-up, and the Nats fail to land a replacement catcher via free agency or trade before the season begins. Those are not good odds. But hey, at least a guy who arrived at his first tryout with the Nationals in the back of an onion truck gets to play another glorious spring of professional baseball, catching some of the best pitchers on the planet. That’s not so bad at all.

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