Decisions, decisions: September call-up time for the #Nats

Rosters have expanded as the calendar has rolled over to September 2018.

Major league teams can now carry up to 40 players on their active roster. Most won’t choose to roll with that many, but still, this is traditionally the part of the season in which organizations will give top minor league performers a “cup of coffee” a chance to show what they can do on the major league stage.

The Nationals have already started this process, selecting the contract of reliever Austen Williams on Saturday. Williams, 25, was fantastic this season for Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse, posting a 1.19 ERA across 68 innings combined and turning in very strong peripherals as well with a 0.84 WHIP and 5.24 K/BB (strikeouts per walk).

Since Williams was drafted in 2014 as a 21-year-old, he was eligible for the Rule 5 draft last year. The Rule 5 draft takes place every December and allows major league organizations to “steal” minor league players from other teams, with some caveats:

  1. The player can’t be on his organization’s 40-man roster (even if he’s never played before in the major leagues).
  2. The player has to have been a professional for at least four seasons if he turned pro at age 19 or older, and at least five seasons if he turned pro at age 18 or younger.
  3. The player must remain on the drafting team’s 25-man roster for the entirety of the following season; if he’s removed, he must be offered back to the organization from which he was taken.

Williams wasn’t taken in the Rule 5 draft last year. Neither was teammate Spencer Kieboom, who went unprotected but was later added to the Nationals’ roster to take the place of the injured Matt Wieters during the 2018 season. While Kieboom has cemented himself as a major league reserve catcher, Williams enjoyed a breakout season in the minor leagues as a reliever, taking well to being moved out of the rotation and putting up numbers that demanded the Nats’ attention. As a result, he is now part of a major league ballclub and has earned a coveted 40-man roster spot.

Pitchers…some names of note

Another interesting prospect who went unprotected but was not selected in last year’s Rule 5 draft: Kyle McGowin, who was drafted in 2013 as a 21-year-old.

A throw-in piece in the deal that sent Danny Espinosa to Anaheim after the 2016 season, McGowin turned in a forgettable first year with the Nationals organization, putting up a 5.95 ERA between High-A Potomac, Double-A Harrisburg, and Triple-A Syracuse. But this year has been a totally different story, as McGowin has put himself on the brink of a once-unlikely major league call-up with a 2.90 ERA across those levels, including a sparkling 1.32 ERA for Syracuse, and a 0.92 WHIP and 4.74 K/BB. He’s worked exclusively as a starter and pitched brilliantly down the stretch.

If the Nats decide they have enough young pitchers to evaluate this month already, the 26-year-old McGowin could be placed on the 40-man roster after the season, when more spots will open up with the expected departure of free agents like Bryce Harper, Jeremy Hellickson, Tim Collins, Greg Holland, Mark Reynolds, Kelvin Herrera, Tommy Milone, and Wieters. (They did the same with impressive reliever Wander Suero last year, with Suero getting a chance to show off in spring training and ultimately reaching the big leagues this year.) If he isn’t, McGowin will again be exposed to the Rule 5 draft, where he will undoubtedly present a more tantalizing option for other teams despite being a year older.

McGowin isn’t the only pitcher in his mid-20s about whom the Nats need to make a decision. On Friday, they decided to cut bait on former setup man Ryan Madson, trading him to the Los Angeles Dodgers for salary relief and a 25-year-old right-hander named Andrew Istler.

In the Dodgers organization, Istler appeared this season for High-A Rancho Cucamonga, Double-A Tulsa, and Triple-A Oklahoma City, all of which play in reputed “hitters’ leagues”. He turned in a solid 2.37 ERA with a great 0.89 WHIP and fine 3.84 K/BB. While not as dominant as Williams, Istler’s numbers make a convincing case for a September cup of coffee. There’s also the small matter of his Rule 5 status he’ll be eligible for the Rule 5 draft for the first time this December, having been drafted in 2015 when he was 22.

What the Nats do with Istler will depend, of course, on how they view him. Luke Erickson at, a well-regarded observer of the Washington minor league system, suggested after the trade that Istler figures as a “roster-filler” who could give the Double-A Harrisburg club some relief innings next year. Baseball America‘s J.J. Cooper, meanwhile, described Istler as a pitcher with “a chance to be a useful, low-leverage reliever”. If Istler is considered purely organizational depth, the Nats likely don’t care too much whether another team wants to give him a shot in their bullpen next year. But if they feel they got someone valuable in exchange for Madson, they will want to protect him from the Rule 5 draft in his first year of eligibility.

Meanwhile, 25-year-old James Bourque accelerated up the Nationals’ prospect rankings this year, landing at #19 on MLB Pipeline‘s list. This is Bourque’s fifth professional season, as he was drafted in 2014 and wasn’t taken in last year’s Rule 5 draft. But while Bourque was just an A-ball innings-eater in 2017, putting up a 5.07 ERA while spending the whole season with Single-A Hagerstown, he’s undergone the same transformation as Williams.

The fireballing Bourque owns a 1.73 ERA across 52 innings at the High-A and Double-A levels this season. While he made 20 starts last year, he’s worked exclusively out of the bullpen this year, and the results have been dramatic. His topline numbers are supported by a solid 1.04 WHIP and 3.04 K/BB. Those peripherals aren’t as gaudy as Williams’, McGowin’s, or Istler’s, but they’re not bad at all.

The Nats probably need to protect Bourque or risk losing him in the Rule 5 draft in December. He’s only gotten better as the season has gone on, and that 98-mph fastball and 0.96 ERA for Double-A Harrisburg are likely to get some attention if he’s available via Rule 5. But there’s a reasonable case for not calling up Bourque this month even if the Nats do plan to give him a 40-man roster spot before the winter meetings close. He hasn’t sniffed Triple-A yet, after all, and his command has been shaky at times, as he’s issued 5.8 walks per nine innings at Double-A thus far. As he’s unlikely to see much major league action even if he is called to Washington, Bourque may be a good candidate for a tryout in spring camp as a rostered minor league pitcher, with an eye toward continuing to bring him along as a potential impact reliever sometime in 2019.

A fringier case still is that of Phillips Valdez, whose situation is somewhat different. The 26-year-old Valdez is poised to become a minor league free agent at the end of the season, as he has spent parts of at least seven seasons (nine, to be exact) in the minors and he is currently on a minor league contract.  Of course, the Nationals could try to re-sign him to a minor league contract for 2019. He’s exceedingly unlikely to get a major league deal from another organization and may prefer to remain with the organization that developed him, especially if he is promised an invitation to spring training next year.

Valdez hasn’t ever been selected in the Rule 5 draft despite putting up solid numbers in the high minors over the past few years. This year, he’s been quite effective, recording a 2.73 ERA over 135 innings between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse while working out of both the rotation and the bullpen as needed. His peripherals aren’t quite as good, though, with a just-OK 1.23 WHIP and a mediocre 2.26 K/BB. He hasn’t made nearly as strong an argument as McGowin, Istler, or even Bourque, and the simple truth is that 40-man roster spots are precious commodities that can’t be handed out to every minor leaguer on the verge of aging out of prospect status who has finally started to show something.

And then there’s Bryan Harper. Best known, fairly or not, as Bryce Harper’s older brother, Bryan Harper is a 6-foot-6 lefty who has been working his way back into the picture this year. Harper was on the cusp of the majors after a breakout 2016 season in which he dominated left-handed hitters across the Double-A and Triple-A levels. But then he tore the UCL in his throwing elbow and required Tommy John surgery. The Nationals signed him to a new deal and invited him to major league spring training for the first time this past off-season, and while his velocity looked to be back into its usual low 90s, he wasn’t quite hitting his spots.

The trend has persisted for Harper throughout an up-and-down campaign at the Double-A level this year. While he’s worked to a pretty decent 3.74 ERA, his results have come in spite of a lousy 1.53 WHIP and 1.36 K/BB, as he’s walked 5.5 batters per nine innings. But those overall numbers might not tell the whole story. Harper hasn’t walked a batter in nearly a month (last on August 5), and he only allowed three hits and two runs in all of August, including a six-game streak of appearances in which he didn’t give up a hit, walk, or run. Is it a hot streak, or is it a sign that a pitcher who nearly broke into the majors two years ago is regaining his old form after a traumatic injury?

Any decisions the Nats make on Harper will be complicated by three factors. One is that he’s 28, and he’ll be 29 in December, making him well older than the rest of the guys mentioned here and certainly too old to be considered a real prospect. Another is that he’s on a one-year minor league contract, so he’s a free agent in November unless he’s signed to a new deal. The last is that he’s Bryce Harper’s brother, and the Harpers are extremely close and have long dreamed of playing on the same team in the major leagues, and with both of them set to become free agents after this season, this might be their last chance to do so. Bryan Harper has done enough down the stretch to set decision-makers’ minds at ease about what could be seen as a nepotistic promotion. But is it enough, with limited roster spots available, for him to get the call?

Position players…not a good bet

What the Nats have is a good collection of late bloomers, and what they have to decide is which of them they think have the best potential to be effective in the big leagues. That goes beyond just pitchers and includes a few position players as well.

If you’ve never heard of Austin Davidson, don’t blame yourself. He’s never been a much-discussed prospect in the Nationals organization, and he’s already flown through his first Rule 5 draft without any other team taking him from the Nats. But this year has been a little different for Davidson, a 2014 draftee who is now 25. He made it to Double-A for the first time, later than many of his more touted peers, and he’s put up a .291/.852 slash line while playing six positions (mostly first base and left field, with some second base).

Davidson’s problem is basically that there is no place for him to play, and while he’s had a very good season, he hasn’t had a great season, and as a 25-year-old at Double-A, you need to have a great season to be kicking down the door to the majors. He’s a position player, whereas Istler is a pitcher, but a roster spot is a roster spot, and if the Nats have to make a decision between the two, it’s hard to see how Istler doesn’t win out.

A rebuilding team might see Davidson’s positional flexibility and strong offensive numbers this year and decide to take a chance on him as a bench player. But then again, Davidson has never been a high-profile prospect, and it’s all too likely he’ll be back at Double-A Harrisburg next year, providing a steady presence in the lineup and shifting around the diamond as needed. Maybe we’ll see him in some split-squad games in the spring.

Drew Ward is ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Nats’ #30 prospect. But he ranked higher last year and, following a very disappointing season at Double-A Harrisburg, he wasn’t added to the 40-man roster, went unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, and came out on the other side of it still a member of the Washington Nationals organization. But after recovering from a wrist injury in the off-season, the 23-year-old infielder has shown somewhat better this year. He’s finally moved across the infield from third base to first base, he filled in for a few weeks up at Triple-A Syracuse for the first time, and he’s posted a .243/.766 slash line across the two levels.

Ward’s problem is basically that there is no place for him to play, and while he’s had a good season, he hasn’t had a great season, and you probably see where this is going. Ward was drafted out of high school as an 18-year-old in 2013, so he only attained eligibility for the Rule 5 draft last year, and he’s still a couple years younger than Davidson. But the two are both in the position of coming on late in their development and yet still not coming on strong enough to really merit consideration at the highest level.

Like Davidson, Ward could be attractive to a rebuilding organization looking for unsung prospects in the Rule 5 draft, and he might even be able to contribute around the edges in the major leagues. But it seems unlikely. Ward’s numbers at Double-A are pretty good, but he didn’t do well in his Triple-A stint, and now that he’s more or less a full-time first baseman, the pressure on him to hit is even higher. The Nats probably leave Ward off the 40-man roster again, he probably goes untouched in the Rule 5 draft again, and maybe now that he’s healthy, he’ll get an invitation to major league spring training in 2019 and play in a few games with the big leaguers.

Outfielder Rhett Wiseman had a little prospect buzz around him when the Nats used their second-highest draft pick on him in 2015. But he’s 24 years old now and still hasn’t played above the High-A level. While he’s been the most prolific home run hitter on the Nationals’ farm, smacking 21 over the fence this season, he’s almost two years older than average for the level and he’s repeating it after a less showy 2017 season. He owns a .258/.859 slash line.

The Nats may want to see what Wiseman can do at Double-A next year. But it doesn’t seem likely they’ll want it badly enough to add him to the 40-man roster just to make sure no one else can take him in the Rule 5 draft. He’s not in the Nationals’ top 30 prospects, there’s no indication that he’s close to major league-ready, and while he’s looked good treading water in High-A ball this year, there’s no denying that he has been treading water.

So, what does the roster actually look like?

It’s a hard truth: The decision whether or not to make a young man’s dreams come true is, in the end, all about mathematics.

As it stands, the Nats have three openings on their 40-man roster. Four were created by the rapid-fire departures of Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams, Ryan Madson, and Gio Gonzalez last month, but one was filled Saturday by the promotion of Austen Williams, who was not previously on the 40-man roster. And it’s really smarter to think of it as one opening, because Erick Fedde and Joe Ross will need their 40-man roster spots back as they come off the 60-day disabled list as soon as this week.

The Nats can broaden the aperture somewhat, of course. Herrera has been ruled out for the season, and he can be moved to the 60-day DL to open another spot on the 40-man roster. Milone made a two-inning rehab start on Saturday for Double-A Harrisburg, allowing no runs but giving up two hits and a walk; if the Nats decide he’s not likely to contribute to the ballclub’s welfare before the season is out, they can place him on the 60-day DL as well. Sean Doolittle, Hellickson, and Wieters are also dealing with injuries, although there’s been no suggestion yet that they could be shut down.

For right now, we can safely assume the Nats have a minimum of two openings on the 40-man roster this month, into which they can promote players who have performed well in the minor leagues (and who might, like the names listed above, end up going elsewhere in the off-season if they are not rostered).

Worth noting: Potential call-ups Victor Robles, Raudy Read, Trevor Gott, Austin L. Adams, Adrian Sanchez, Matt Reynolds, and Austin Voth already have spots on the 40-man roster, so calling them up doesn’t affect this calculus from a roster math perspective although, of course, it becomes increasingly difficult to find playing time for everybody the more men you have on the active roster. Of the injured Nats who may return before the season ends, only Fedde and Ross are on the 60-day DL, so the rest (Doolittle, Hellickson and Wieters) are still on the 40-man roster as well.

As for Robles and the rest, expect to see them. All of them except Robles and Read, who appeared for the Nats in 2017, have spent some time with the major league club this year. General manager Mike Rizzo has said that Robles will likely be recalled after the minor league season ends:

“I think he’ll be added to the big league roster after the Triple-A season ends — I think that is September 2nd — so we’ll probably see him soon thereafter on the 3rd of September join us with a handful of other people,” Rizzo said.

Syracuse’s schedule actually ends on the 3rd of September, so we might have to wait till the 4th to see the top outfield prospect in the organization back in Washington, D.C.

“We just want him to catch up and get as many everyday at bats as he can while he is in Triple-A,” Rizzo explained, “and when we bring him up we’d certainly like to see him play in the big leagues.”

Sanchez and Reynolds could give the likes of Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner a break at the end of a season in which they have played often; Turner has actually appeared in every single game in the Nationals’ season thus far. Gott, Adams, and Voth may compete for innings with the likes of Williams and other major league relievers, although none of the trio have particularly impressed in limited action with the Nats. Read has hit well in his abbreviated season after being suspended for performance-enhancing drugs, but defense remains a severe weakness for him and he will face some obstacles in finding playing time behind Spencer Kieboom, Pedro Severino, and Wieters. Meanwhile, Fedde and Ross figure to find opportunities to pitch as the Nats try to get an early read on how their 2019 rotation picture looks, with Gonzalez now a Milwaukee Brewer and Hellickson set to become a free agent.

The Nats’ playoff dreams may be all but officially dead, but management still has some work to do before the long, cold winter begins. It started with the call-ups of Severino and Williams on Saturday. But it won’t stop there. It’s time to see what the future of this ballclub might be made of.

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