Usually the Nationals have over 60-players in Spring Training camp. This year the group is smaller. Officially the entire healthy portion of the 40-man roster is part of a team’s spring training roster, and they generally make up two-thirds of the beginnings of camp. This year the team only invited 18 non-roster invitees (NRI). By manager Dave Martinez‘s count, he said he has 58 players and that adds up.
“I got 58 guys in camp that I have to worry about and get them ready for this season,” Martinez said.
Who has the best chance of making this Nationals roster from the NRI list or the players and newcomers who were not on the Nationals mid-season roster.
Immediately Victor Robles stands out at the top of list from the 40-man roster players and lefty reliever Vidal Nuno from the NRI list. Wander Suero impressed the coaches last year and so did Spencer Kieboom who moved to number three on the depth charts when Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes were acquired. There is Andrew Stevenson who looks like the odd-man out on the bench, and Koda Glover always seems to be a question mark. Add to the list Joe Ross or Erick Fedde who could fit in as a long-man according to Davey Martinez. Maybe Henderson Alvarez could be a long-man as the former starter was forced out of baseball back in 2015 with a shoulder injury and has bounced around since 2017. With Jeremy Hellickson looking like the 5th starter, it could be a fight for a bullpen spot or two.
“Hellickson obviously is here, and for me he’s got the upper hand right now. He’s pitched really well for us,” Martinez said. “We still got two months before Opening Day, and anything could happen. I want these guys to come out here and compete, Henderson, Joe, Fedde — they all understand that, and they all know that. I’d rather see them go down in Triple-A and get some innings in. Build up some innings, get some confidence going and then when we need them they’re ready, they’re available. That’s not to say we won’t do something different, but I would rather see them go down there and get their starts in, build their innings up.”
Who else are long-shots to be the next Clint Robinson? Sao Magnifico wrote a comprehensive piece on all of the new Nats which you can read here. He also wrote the following on previous seasons where NRIs made the roster.
They’re all long shots, some longer than others. That being said, eight NRIs from 2018 spring training (Tim Collins, Jimmy Cordero, Hellickson, Tommy Milone, Spencer Kieboom, Miguel Montero, Jhonatan Solano, Moises Sierra) ended up on the active roster at some point during the season, with more than half spending a significant amount of time with the major league team (in Hellickson and Kieboom’s cases, nearly the entire season). While that was an unusual result, it wasn’t that unusual. In 2017, six NRIs (Matt Albers, Fedde, Jeremy Guthrie, Jacob Turner, Grant Green, Stevenson) spent time with the major league team during the season; in 2016, it was four (Matt Belisle, Sean Burnett, Lucas Giolito, Chris Heisey); and in 2015, it was six (Rafael Martin, Pedro Severino, Emmanuel Burriss, Clint Robinson, Dan Uggla, Reed Johnson).
In all of the aforementioned seasons, at least one NRI broke camp with the major league team, and at least one (not necessarily ones who made the team originally!) spent nearly the entire season on the major league roster. In two cases, an NRI ended up being among the top ten most valuable players on the team that season, by rWAR reckoning.
In other words, the Nats don’t just treat NRIs as cannon fodder. During the past four seasons, NRIs have ended up making substantial contributions to the major league team. It’s hard to predict exactly which of them will end up actually being guys, but in general, bet that we’ll be seeing a few of this year’s NRIs throughout the season and possibly beyond, whether as a temporary role player, a taxi squad member, or a roster staple.
By and large, minor league free agents signed with an invitation to spring training (in other words, non-prospects) cannot be sent down to the minors at will if the Nationals select their contract. The notable exceptions are Aaron Barrett, Scott Copeland, and Hunter Jones. Any of those three are controllable beyond 2019 as well as optionable for at least two more seasons (three, in Jones’ case) if they are added to the 40-man roster at any point, assuming there’s nothing unusual built into their contracts like a player opt-out if he is assigned to the minors or an agreement the Nats will not tender him a contract at the end of the season (I wouldn’t expect those in the case of these three, or most other, NRIs).
Conversely, all of the minor leaguers within the Nats organization (non-FA signings) whom the team invited to spring training could be sent back down to the minors at will if added to the roster except Matt Reynolds, who is out of options.
Players on the bubble (not aforementioned) I’d expect to get serious consideration to make the team (even if only in case of injury to a player ahead of them on the depth chart), roughly in descending order of likelihood, with the rest of the NRIs and minor leaguers being present essentially to either round out numbers or audition for a future role:
Rotation: Joe Ross, Henderson Alvarez, Erick Fedde
Relievers: Sammy Solis, Justin Miller, Aaron Barrett, J.J. Hoover, Kyle McGowin, Jimmy Cordero
Catchers: Spencer Kieboom, Pedro Severino
Infielders: Adrian Sanchez, Carter Kieboom, Brandon Snyder
Outfielders: Andrew Stevenson, Hunter Jones, Chuck Taylor
Of those, I’d say clearly the most unsettled part of the team is the relief corps, although anyone past Miller making the team out of spring training would figure as a surprise. The only other potential areas of competition I see, barring some Hot Stove-related upheaval, are the fifth starter spot (and I’d expect Hellickson to make the team in some capacity even on the small chance he isn’t in the rotation) and the Taylor/Difo bench spots (so named because it seems decidedly likely that Taylor and Difo will end up occupying them), although if Robles doesn’t impress in spring training for whatever reason, I think he’d likely start the year in the minors rather than on the bench, which could open the door to one of these other position players making the team.
There you have it for the list of players to keep an eye on as well as any complications if addition free agents are signed or trades are made.