It’s an off-day for the Washington Nationals in West Palm Beach, but nobody with anything to prove is going to be relaxing too much today.
The Nats made their third round of cuts immediately after last night’s 7–4 victory over the New York Mets, relegating relievers Wander Suero and Bryan Harper, starting pitcher Jaron Long, outfielder Rafael Bautista, catcher Jhonatan Solano, and first baseman/outfielder Jose Marmolejos to minor league camp. (Suero, Bautista, and Marmolejos are on the 40-man roster, so the Nats exercised minor league options to assign those players to Triple-A Syracuse. Harper, Long, and Solano are not on the roster, so for them, they were simply reassigned, as their contracts already officially belong to the Syracuse Chiefs as the top minor league affiliate of the Nationals.)
Where does that leave the Nats?
Fans are eagerly awaiting the return of Ryan Zimmerman and Michael A. Taylor to the lineup in major league spring training games, as well as the spring debuts of Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton, who continue to recuperate from knee surgeries last year and are supposedly getting work on the minor league side. Nats hitting coach Kevin Long told MASN’s Dan Kolko yesterday that Zimmerman, Taylor, and Eaton are participating in minor league games and getting at-bats there. Time will tell when the Nats will judge them fit to face major league-caliber pitching in Grapefruit League play.
TalkNats took an extensive look at the Nats’ injury situation in a recent post. Ultimately, the Nats should be relieved not to have any serious injuries at this point except for starter Joe Ross, who continues to recover from “Tommy John” surgery to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow last summer, and reliever Koda Glover, who is continuing to deal with the inflammation of the right rotator cuff that brought an early end to his 2017 campaign.
Murphy will likely miss Opening Day, and each passing day in which he does not appear in a Grapefruit League game makes it seem less likely Eaton will be ready for the start of the season as well, but the fact that it remains hypothetically possible both could play in the first week of the season tells us neither should be out for long. The Nats still say they are hopeful both will be ready for Opening Day, for what it’s worth.
There has been no apparent concern that Zimmerman and Taylor will miss Opening Day.
Non-roster invitees remaining in major league camp:
- INF Reid Brignac
- INF Chris Dominguez
- OF Ryan Raburn
- OF Moises Sierra
- C/INF Spencer Kieboom
- C Miguel Montero
- LHP Tim Collins
- LHP Ismael Guillon
- LHP Tommy Milone
- RHP Edwin Jackson
- RHP Chris Smith
Minor league players (more than half the season spent at the minor league level in 2017) remaining in major league camp:
- INF/OF Matt Reynolds
- OF Victor Robles
- OF Andrew Stevenson
- C Pedro Severino
- RHP Austin L. Adams
- RHP A.J. Cole*
- RHP Erick Fedde
- RHP Trevor Gott
* Cole is out of options in 2018 and must be removed from the 40-man roster and clear waivers to be reassigned to the minors.
In addition, there are a few players who are “on the bubble”, fighting for roster spots that may or may not be guaranteed:
- INF Adrian Sanchez
- INF/OF Wilmer Difo
- OF Brian Goodwin*
- LHP Matt Grace*
- LHP Enny Romero*
- LHP Sammy Solis
- RHP Joaquin Benoit**
- RHP Koda Glover†
- RHP Shawn Kelley**
* Goodwin, Grace, and Romero are out of options in 2018.
** Benoit and Kelley have the right to refuse assignment to the minor leagues and elect free agency regardless of whether they clear outright waivers.
† Glover is injured and not expected to be active on Opening Day.
The Nats are virtually guaranteed to carry these 15 players on the Opening Day roster, barring a late-spring injury:
- INF Matt Adams
- INF Anthony Rendon
- INF Trea Turner
- INF Ryan Zimmerman
- INF/OF Howie Kendrick
- OF Bryce Harper
- OF Michael A. Taylor
- C Matt Wieters
- LHP Sean Doolittle
- LHP Gio Gonzalez
- RHP Brandon Kintzler
- RHP Ryan Madson
- RHP Tanner Roark
- RHP Max Scherzer
- RHP Stephen Strasburg
They should be considered highly likely to carry these additional four players:
- INF/OF Wilmer Difo
- OF Brian Goodwin
- RHP A.J. Cole
- RHP Shawn Kelley
If they are healthy, the Nats will certainly carry two more players:
- INF Daniel Murphy
- OF Adam Eaton
That leaves the Nats with four to six roster spots that are likely unsettled, with up to ten that could be considered in play if one takes an extremely conservative view of the roster “locks”.
Players that are out of options should be considered favorites, generally speaking. The smart money says Benoit, Grace, and Romero will make the Opening Day roster, because the Nats will risk losing them if they are designated for assignment. Those three would give the Nats a seven-man bullpen, with Cole, Gonzalez, Roark, Scherzer, and Strasburg expected to comprise the rotation.
One roster spot left?
If Eaton and Murphy defy the odds and make the Opening Day roster, that leaves one spot for a backup catcher that is currently unsettled. The contenders are the former top prospect Severino, fighting to stick on a major league roster after three seasons split between the majors and the high minors; the late-blooming organizational player Kieboom, who has impressed this spring both with his contact bat and solid results at his brand-new secondary position of first base; and the veteran Montero, brought in on a split deal to try out for a job on former bench coach Davey Martinez’s catching staff.
Montero is considered the favorite for the job. Kieboom has been by far the best performer of the three this spring. Severino is generally regarded as having the highest ceiling, if he can find some consistency at the plate.
What if Murphy misses Opening Day?
While the Nats are publicly optimistic that Murphy will be ready to go, reports are that he’s still limited in fielding drills and hasn’t played in even the simulacra that are “minor league spring training games”. The Washington Post has described Murphy as unlikely for Opening Day. TalkNats has reached the same conclusion.
If Murphy opens the season on the disabled list, that means one more decision for the Nats as they must replace him with either a position player or an extra pitcher.
Reynolds appears to be the favorite; he is already pushing Difo with a superior batting line and more significant experience in the outfield, which could be a real factor with Eaton fighting his way back from ACL and MCL tears in his knee last season and Kendrick expected to get the bulk of the starts at second base in Murphy’s place.
Other position player possibilities would include Kieboom, who has been mentioned less in the backup catcher competition than Severino and Montero but has been hitting well and can back up at least one additional position; Dominguez, who only offers coverage at first and third bases but has had a hot-hitting spring and has some history with Martinez from the Cubs organization; and Stevenson, who can’t play any infield but is a versatile and speedy outfielder who has shown improved power and bat control this spring. Brignac, Raburn, Sanchez, and Sierra remain in camp but appear ticketed for the minors, given the stronger competition in their roles. Robles will likely play every day in the minor leagues rather than join the major league bench. Severino lacks positional versatility and will also likely play every day in the minors if he is not chosen as Wieters’ primary backup.
Alternatively, the Nats could opt to bolster a bullpen that has some major question marks after The Law Firm of Kintzler, Madson & Doolittle by bringing along an impressive spring performer like Adams, Collins, Gott, or Smith. Solis has not been dominant this spring but is reportedly well-regarded by Nats management, so he’s also a contender. Meanwhile, Fedde, Jackson, and Milone appear likely to serve as minor league starting depth, and Guillon simply hasn’t had many opportunities to pitch after arriving late to camp due to visa issues; he seems likely to open the season in the minor leagues as well.
What if Eaton misses Opening Day too?
If the Nats play it conservatively, they will keep Eaton in West Palm Beach for at least a few more days along with Murphy. Eaton is reported to be further along in his progression than Murphy, actually playing in minor league games, but he is rapidly running out of time to adjust to playing at the top level. It is also unclear whether he is fielding or running the bases, but Kevin Long said Tuesday night he has gotten about 40 at-bats on the minor league side.
Eaton’s absence would seem to make it likely that the Nats would either choose to carry an infielder and an outfielder or an outfielder and a reliever.
The favorites without expanding the bullpen would look like Reynolds and Stevenson, providing positional coverage for the absent Eaton and Murphy while potentially serving as platoon options in left field, if Goodwin’s offensive woes continue into the regular season. A more unorthodox configuration like Kieboom and Reynolds, giving the Nats a third catcher and backup first baseman as well as a super-utility player who can do everything but catch, is also a possibility. Kieboom and Stevenson could also work as a combination, although the Nats would be counting on Difo’s cold spring bat to get warmer as summer nears.
Using one of the two available roster spots for another reliever could start to look attractive, though, especially if a couple of minor-league and non-roster options continue to impress. Reynolds in particular provides enough positional coverage that, with neither Eaton nor Murphy expected to miss much time, the Nats could probably get by with a short bench and might benefit from the pitching help. It’d be a risk, especially with a rookie manager, but it’s an option the Nats will certainly at least consider if Eaton ends up missing Opening Day.
What about that bullpen?
There’s a lot of uncertainty in the Washington bullpen. Behind the closer Doolittle, none of the Nats’ rostered left-handers have looked particularly sharp this spring, with Romero appearing particularly shaky. Grace probably has an edge as a groundball specialist capable of going multiple innings, a role no one else on the staff really fits, but then again, with humdrum stuff compared with Romero’s fastball that touches triple digits, he seems likelier to attract no interest on the waiver wire. Solis has a minor league option remaining but is competing for an Opening Day job.
Benoit was signed to a major league deal, but with just a $1 million guarantee, the Nats haven’t invested a lot in him. He has looked very rusty this spring after a lousy 2017 campaign, and if the Nats decide he simply doesn’t have much left in the tank at the ripe old age of 40, they could cut him without the sunk cost being terribly painful. (Kelley is in a similar boat, but he’s making about five times what Benoit is this season, giving the Nats more incentive to see if their investment in him can pay off.)
Whatever the Nats do with their lefties, it seems likely they will carry at least one, probably two, and possibly three into the season (in addition to Doolittle). Perhaps factoring into that picture along with Solis is Collins, who touched 97-98 mph with his fastball against the Mets and has paired that surprisingly robust heater with a sharp, snappy curveball. Collins spent last year rehabbing and playing a bit in the minor leagues with the Washington organization. While a player who hasn’t appeared on a major league mound since 2014 due to a multitude of injuries (not the least of which included two Tommy John surgeries) wouldn’t seem like a real candidate to be picked up if he opts out and becomes a free agent, he does have minor league options (although he must consent to being sent down) and has been noteworthy enough this spring that some other team could decide to give him a shot.
Suero looked like he would be a factor this spring in competing for a bullpen spot, but after he injured his side in a game last week, the Nats chose to option him down. He could open the season on the minor league disabled list, depending on how serious the injury is. Either way, the pressure is off for him to make the roster for Opening Day, but he definitely impressed Martinez and could be a mid-season call-up if he gets healthy. Other notable right-handers include Adams and Gott, minor league relievers who have lacked consistency at Triple-A Syracuse but have shown well this spring, and Smith, a true journeyman who made his major league debut with the Toronto Blue Jays last year and has now survived a few rounds of cuts. All three are dark horses even if the Nats do decide to cut Benoit, but they’ve been fun to watch and are worth keeping an eye on, particularly since they could well serve as mid-season injury depth.
If Glover were healthy, then he would definitely be a candidate to head north with the team and could potentially push Benoit. But we haven’t heard much about Glover since he was shut down early in camp, and it doesn’t seem he is expected back anytime soon. It’s probably for the best that the Nats bring him along slowly, considering his injury issues.
What if the Nats make a trade or sign someone?
If the Nats add to their roster, then all bets are off. You can bet there will be a few catchers, perhaps some of them more impressive than the triad of Kieboom, Montero, and Severino, on the waiver wire as Opening Day nears. Alex Cobb is still floating around on the starting pitcher market, as is Scott Boras client and former Philadelphia Phillie notable Jeremy Hellickson. And one can never count on a bizarro blockbuster trade by general manager Mike Rizzo that no one sees coming.
For now, though, we have a pretty good idea of the Nats’ roster situation, and of which non-roster players, minor-leaguers, and on-the-bubble rostered players we should be keeping an eye on.