Who the heck is that guy? — 2020 edition! New faces at #Nats spring training

Non-Roster Invitees by Nats Graphics

It’s here! It’s finally here! As pitchers and catchers and coaches descend on West Palm Beach this week, the long, dark winter is finally coming to an end and baseball season is about to begin.

Never mind that this has officially been the shortest offseason in franchise history for the world champion Washington Nationals. Time has come for spring training, and we couldn’t be happier.

A ritual of spring training, of course, involves getting to know some new members of the team — be them brand-new free agent signings or trade acquisitions, or minor league stalwarts getting a chance to strut their stuff in front of the major league coaching staff. Here’s the TalkNats annual field guide to new faces at Nationals spring camp.

#9 – Eric Thames

2019 stats (majors): 149 G, .247 AVG, .851 OPS, 5.5% HR (25), 30.5% K (141), 11.1% BB (51)
Roster status: 40-man roster, signed through 2020 with mutual option for 2021

If it seems like Eric Thames came out of nowhere a few years back, there’s a reason for it. After an unremarkable stint as a part-time player in the American League, Thames went to Korea for a few years, where he terrorized KBO pitching and eventually earned a three-year deal with the Milwaukee Brewers. His time with Milwaukee now concluded, Thames signed a one-year guarantee with the Nats this offseason.

The Nats signed Thames to do one thing: destroy baseballs. Thames is one of the game’s most powerful sluggers, and he’s particularly potent against right-handed pitching, of which the NL East has no shortage. Twenty-three of Thames’ home runs last year during the regular season came off right-handers, and he added a 24th in the Wild Card Game when he took some guy named Max Scherzer way deep to give the Brewers a then-formidable lead. The weakness in his game is an above-average strikeout rate that hovered above 30% last year.

Thames has a reputation as a fun-loving, slightly eccentric personality who should help keep the clubhouse loose, although he doesn’t lack for intensity where it’s needed. He’s good friends with Howie Kendrick and should serve a similar role in the team dynamic, an experienced, generally easygoing veteran who can keep the team “medium” during the ups and downs of a 162-game season. On the field, expect Thames to get the lion’s share of starts at first base against right-handed pitching, likely fitting into a platoon arrangement with Ryan Zimmerman and perhaps Kendrick.

#14 – Starlin Castro

2019 stats (majors): 162 G, .270 AVG, .736 OPS, 3.3% HR (22), 16.4% K (111), 4.1% BB (28)
Roster status: 40-man roster, signed through 2021

It seems like Starlin Castro has been around forever, yet he won’t even turn 30 until Opening Week. Formerly a shortstop, Castro broke into the majors at age 20 with the Chicago Cubs. He’s also played for the New York Yankees and the division-rival Miami Marlins, with whom the Nats probably knew him best before signing him to a two-year major league deal this winter. The Yankees converted Castro into a second baseman. The Marlins used him as both a second baseman and a third baseman. The Nats reportedly signed him as a second baseman, but Castro has said in interviews that he feels comfortable at third if he’s needed there. He might be.

In this feature last year, after the Nats acquired a different player who had spent the previous season with the Marlins, we wrote: “But in order to try to make sense of [his] season with the division-rival Miami Marlins, you have to break it into halves. … The Nats are gambling that [his] second half was a wild small-sample-size fluke.” It’s a similar story with Castro as it was with Kyle Barraclough, only the Nats are hoping that the second half was the sustainable one and the first half the fluke. Castro has said he changed his hitting approach to hit more flyballs and pull pitches, hitting them out to left field instead of spraying them all over the diamond. That translated into a second-half surge, going from a paltry .608 OPS in the first half to an .892 OPS after the All-Star Break. Castro hit 14 of his 22 home runs last season in August and September alone, posting a .971 OPS over the final month of the year.

The Nats guaranteed Castro two years, gambling that whatever changed for Castro to turn his matchstick bat into Thor’s hammer, hitting coach Kevin Long can keep it going. The famously durable Castro should be an everyday feature in the lineup. While he’s ticketed for second base, it’s possible the Nats will employ him at third base as well, especially if utilitymen Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera struggle defensively at the hot corner and top prospect Carter Kieboom isn’t up to the task.

#20 – Welington Castillo

2019 stats (majors): 72 G, .209 AVG, .684 OPS, 4.8 HR% (12), 29.5 K% (74), 6.4 BB% (16)
2019 stats (minors): 5 G, .238 AVG, .667 OPS, 4.8% HR (1), 28.6 K% (6), 0.0 BB% (0)
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

Boy, two winters ago, didn’t Castillo look intriguing? Coming off a strong offensive year with the Baltimore Orioles, for which he was one of that luckless team’s sole highlights, Castillo secured a surprisingly affordable two-year deal with the Chicago White Sox. Then in May 2018, he got served with a suspension for using a performance-enhancing substance (which he denied taking deliberately). Then his performance cratered, with his OPS over two years in Chicago just south of .700. His defensive stats deteriorated too. Never a good pitch-framer, advanced metrics graded him as one of the worst among regular MLB catchers last year. He caught just 19% of attempted base-stealers.

This feels like the part where I’m supposed to say something positive, but honestly, I don’t have much. Castillo is 33 in April, so he’s not quite to the point of being over-the-hill, but with another year or two like the ones he had with the White Sox, retirement will be calling his name, if it isn’t already. Castillo does offer a bit of thump, and while career years immediately followed by a PED suspension do tend to merit more than a whiff of suspicion (‘sup, Dee Gordon?), he does have that .813-OPS season with the Orioles to point to. But the overall picture is of a catcher who really doesn’t offer anything the Nats don’t already have.

So: Why sign Castillo? Simple. The Nats didn’t guarantee him a roster spot, so they have no real commitment to him while he’s on a minors deal. You can never have too many catchers in spring training, especially in the early going, and although he can’t frame and his blocking and throwing are both poor, you need look no further than Kurt Suzuki to know that’s not all pitchers want in their backstops. Castillo will be another veteran catcher to drill with the big spring pitching staff, and another body to soak up innings behind the plate in Grapefruit League action. With Raudy Read, Tres Barrera, and Taylor Gushue all expected to return to the minors before Opening Day, there’s no obvious role for Castillo down on the farm, but by then, he’ll have served his purpose.

#25 – Jacob Wilson

2019 stats (minors): 55 G, .310 AVG, 1.013 OPS, 6.5 HR% (15), 18.5 K% (43), 13.4 BB% (31)
2019 stats (KBO): 68 G, .251 AVG, .784 OPS, 3.4 HR% (9), 22.4 K% (60), 11.6 BB% (31)
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

Well, well, well, look who’s back! Scooped up in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft from the St. Louis Cardinals organization after the 2017 season, right-batting infielder Jacob Wilson proved a useful farmhand over a season and a half with the Nats. He earned a spring training invite last year, then went to Triple-A Fresno, where he proved over the course of 55 games that he was simply too good for the Pacific Coast League. He was duly purchased by the Lotte Giants of the Korean Baseball Organization, and over a similar sample size in South Korea, his numbers look decidedly less superhuman than they did in the PCL.

Wilson returns to the Nats on a minor league deal with another call to the major league side of camp, and he’s got an interesting opportunity, since his primary position is third base; the Nats don’t have an obvious choice at third base, as they’re hoping top prospect Carter Kieboom can win the job and/or utilityman Asdrubal Cabrera can do a better job playing there every day than he did for the Texas Rangers last year; and if Wilson were to be added to the 40-man roster, since he’s never been on a major league roster before, the Nats could simply option him to and from the minor leagues as needed.

While at 29, Wilson is hardly a conventional prospect, the Nats could look to him to be this year’s Clint Robinson, an old-ish rookie holding down the fort while a higher-ceiling player gets ready to take on the job. He’ll have to elbow aside Wilmer Difo, Adrian Sanchez, Jake Noll, Andrew Stevenson, and other non-roster hopefuls to win the job, and his lackluster numbers in Korea could sandbag him in that pursuit. On the other hand, he outhit Kieboom even during the then-shortstop’s white-hot start to the 2019 season, and at league minimum and with minor league options ready to be used, he carries virtually no risk for the Nats. Unlikely, perhaps, but he’s a dark horse to watch in the third base competition this spring.

#26 – Brandon Snyder

2019 stats (minors, hitting): 117 G, .257 AVG, .852 OPS, 6.8 HR% (31), 33.4 K% (153), 5.7 BB% (26)
2019 stats (minors, pitching): 9 IP, 4.00 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 3.00 K/BB
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

Snyder is becoming a familiar face at Nationals spring training. He signed a minor league deal with a spring invite in 2017 and 2019, too, and he’s been a reliable farmhand during his separate stints with Washington. But what Snyder has not yet done is find a place on the Nats’ active roster. He’ll hope to make enough of an impact this spring to earn that consideration.

Snyder’s game is wonderfully simple: He strikes out a lot, and he homers a lot. There’s not a ton of in-between there. He doesn’t walk much and isn’t an especially high-average hitter, but he aims to do damage when he connects, and often, he does. Beyond his offensive profile, Snyder is incredibly versatile, with at least a few innings of experience at all nine positions. He even pitched occasionally for manager Randy Knorr last year at Triple-A Fresno, appearing in seven games on the bump and even earning a pitching win.

If one considers the last bench spot to be wide-open for the first month of the season, unless the Nats choose to forgo a year of team control by awarding it to Carter Kieboom, then Snyder has as good a case as anyone. He’s done his time on the farm, and he has utility in spades (no pun intended). But he’ll have to beat out rostered players like Wilmer Difo and Adrian Sanchez, who are out of options, as well as other minor league contenders like Jake Noll, Andrew Stevenson, and some non-roster invitees.

#27 – Emilio Bonifacio

2019 stats (minors): 76 G, .286 AVG, .828 OPS, 2.8 HR% (8), 21.9 K% (63), 8.7 BB% (25)
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

Let’s give a warm, hearty “welcome back” to Bonifacio! What, you don’t remember him? Back when the Nats were abominably bad, and very early in his career, the then-23-year-old Bonifacio was a part-time infielder for the 102-loss squad in 2008. Bonifacio wasn’t particularly good, and obviously, neither were the Nats. He didn’t return for the 103-loss sequel (man, the Nats were bad back then!) and has since bounced around, even spending the 2018 season in the independent Atlantic League.

Last season, Bonifacio spent the whole year with the Durham Bulls, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Triple-A affiliate. He was…pretty OK, with about league-average offensive production, although not much power. He also appeared at six positions with Triple-A Durham, including all three outfield spots and all three of the traditional “utility infield” spots (i.e. not counting first base). He logged the bulk of his time in center field.

The switch-hitting Bonifacio isn’t an exceptional player, but the journeyman has experience that the likes of Wilmer Difo, Adrian Sanchez, and Andrew Stevenson don’t have, as well as greater positional flexibility. His time with the Nats was long enough ago that it likely won’t buy him any special favors in a spring competition, but if the Nats want to maximize their roster flexibility with that final(?) bench spot, they could do worse than giving Bonifacio a shot. At best, he could end up being a Stephen Drew type, serving as a sure-handed backup and steady veteran reserve with enough offensive presence to stick. Or he could end up being a Grant Green/Emmanuel Burris type, maybe getting an unmemorable cameo or two in D.C. Bonifacio is definitely a sleeper to make this team due to his versatility, and he’ll be a player to watch in camp.

#29 – Yadiel Hernandez

2019 stats (minors): 126 G, .323 AVG, 1.009 OPS, 6.5% HR (33), 20.9% K (106), 12.4% BB (63)
Contract status: Non-roster invitee

He defected from Cuba in 2015. He first suited up for an MLB affiliate in 2017, when he was 29 and was assigned to the Harrisburg Senators. Now 32, the diminutive outfielder is finally getting a shot at making a major league team.

It’s hard not to root for Yadiel Hernandez, who blew apart Triple-A pitching last year. He looked like a possible call-up early in the season before the Nats signed Gerardo Parra to patch a hole in their outfield mix. Although he continued to torch the high minors, with a batting line that’s genuinely eye-popping even by the standards of the extremely hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, Hernandez did not receive a September call-up, with the Nats instead electing to promote reliever Aaron Barrett from Double-A Harrisburg.

Alas, Hernandez doesn’t look like a natural fit for the Nats’ 26-man roster as presently constructed. He has an outside chance. But he’ll have to battle past fellow lefty-hitting outfielder Andrew Stevenson — he’s got the superior bat by far, but he can’t come close to matching Stevenson’s slick glovework — and win the nod over rostered utility infielders Wilmer Difo, Adrian Sanchez, and Jake Noll, who should also compete for the last bench spot. (Difo, Sanchez, and Noll all have some outfield experience, too, which should help their case, although none turned in anything like Hernandez’s offensive production last year.) There are also other NRIs he’ll have to outmatch. Still, though…it’s hard not to root for him.

#30 – David Hernandez

2019 stats (majors): 42⅔ IP, 8.02 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, 2.65 K/BB
2019 stats (minors): 7 IP, 7.71 ERA, 1.86 WHIP, 1.38 K/BB
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

Man, it’s hard to know what to make of this one. At 34, Hernandez managed to cling onto a major league roster for most of the 2019 season with the Cincinnati Reds. The stats show he got lit up like a Christmas tree, with an ERA above 8 and near-constant traffic on the basepaths. This winter, the Nats picked him up on a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.

But, so, here’s the thing: Hernandez was really, really, really bad in July and August — like, double-digit ERA, opponent OPS over 1.500 bad — but before that, he was merely mediocre. On the morning of July 1, he had a 4.79 ERA and a 4.18 K/BB, with 46 strikeouts in 35⅔ IP. That evening, though, Hernandez gave up three earned runs in an inning of work, and everything just sort of spiraled from there. (And no, he wasn’t pitching against the Houston Astros.) Hernandez got blasted in ten games from the start of July to the tune of a 24.43 ERA, with more walks than strikeouts, before the Reds finally cut him loose. He pitched briefly for the New York Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate to little better results.

At the risk of sounding glib, who knows how these things happen? One moment, David Hernandez is a decent middle reliever; the next, he’s the granddaddy of all gas fires. Maybe he was pitching hurt? Maybe he just got out of sync and couldn’t re-adjust? Maybe he was distracted by personal issues? Maybe he just woke up old and bad one day and it’s never coming back? The Nats don’t have anything to lose seeing what Hernandez has this spring. He’ll probably end up reporting to Triple-A Fresno when all is said and done, but his spring showing could leave the Nats with a decent sense of whether Hernandez could be a contributor this year if the need arises, or whether they’ll be the latest organization to serve him his walking papers.

#33 – Ryne Harper

2019 stats (majors): 54⅓ IP, 3.81 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 5.00 K/BB
2019 stats (minors): 3 IP, 0.00 ERA, 2.00 WHIP, 3.00 K/BB
Contract status: 40-man roster, pre-arb

In a delightful and fun move of the kind last seen when they drafted hard-throwing pitching prospect Trey Turner in 2017, the Nats traded a minor league pitcher for right-handed reliever Ryne Harper last month. The Nats’ newest Harper lacks the star power of his infamous predecessor; he’s a soon-to-be-31-year-old journeyman most recently seen plying his trade with the Minnesota Twins, with whom he made his major league debut last year just four days after his 30th birthday.

Harper doesn’t throw all that hard, but he likes his curveball — a lot. According to advanced metrics, Harper threw his curveball more than half the time in 2019, and it proved effective for him. As you might expect with such a heavy usage of the (normally secondary) pitch, Harper will throw the curve for strikes, spotting it well. In fact, he walked just 10 batters in the major leagues last year, with 50 strikeouts. That’s an awfully nice ratio.

The Nats likely acquired Harper to give them some depth in the bullpen. The former Twin gives them a different look than a hard thrower like Tanner Rainey or Hunter Strickland, or a cutterballer like Will Harris or Wander Suero, to work in the middle innings. But Harper also has minor league options remaining, and he’s probably ticketed to start the season at Triple-A Fresno or Double-A Harrisburg without a very impressive spring. He’ll be a fun one to watch, though, even if he’s not wearing #34.

#36 – Will Harris

Will Harris

2019 stats (majors): 60 IP, 1.50 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 4.43 K/BB
Contract status: 40-man roster, signed through 2022

Will Harris came onto the scene late, making his major league debut just two weeks before his 28th birthday. Now 35, his career arc since has been nothing short of dominance. He owns a career 2.84 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. Last season was his best yet, as he completed a five-year run with the Houston Astros with a flourish.

Well…sort of. Harris had already etched his name into Nats lore before he signed a three-year major league deal to join the Washington organization this winter. His 91-mph cutter down and away to Kendrick, a textbook chase pitch, was instead lashed off the right-field foul pole for a two-run home run that put the Nats on top for good in Game 7 of the World Series. As the Astros flamed out, Harris was their final losing pitcher of record.

The Nats clearly aren’t holding Harris’ fatal fastball against him, nor is Harris holding a grudge over that pitch being punished by the Nats. Overall, Harris has been an excellent relief pitcher, with an arsenal similar to Atlanta Braves setup man (and former Nats closer) Mark Melancon, and reminiscent of a more polished Wander Suero, who could stand to absorb some pitching wisdom from his new teammate. While Sean Doolittle remains the ninth-inning man for the Nats, expect Harris to get a lot of looks in the eighth inning. He’ll pair with veteran Daniel Hudson, and perhaps young Tanner Rainey, to form a setup combination the Nats hope will be lethal in the late innings.

#38 – JB Shuck

2019 stats (majors, hitting): 27 G, .213 AVG, .595 OPS, 0.0 HR% (0), 17.5 K% (10), 14.0 BB% (8)
2019 stats (majors, pitching): 1 IP, 0.00 ERA, 2.00 WHIP, 0.00 K/BB
2019 stats (minors, hitting): 61 G, .268 AVG, .785 OPS, 1.9 HR% (3), 10.8 K% (17), 10.1 BB% (16)
2019 stats (minors, pitching): 19 IP, 3.79 ERA, 1.68 WHIP, 1.35 K/BB
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

Looking for a 32-year-old journeyman who can hit left-handed, just not very well, and also pitch left-handed, just not very well, and also play center field, just not very well? Look no further than JB Shuck, a new addition to the Nationals organization. Shuck signed a minor league deal with an invitation to major league spring training, explicitly as a two-way player, which is something MLB officially has now. Who knew!?

Shuck was a reserve outfielder for a short while with the Pittsburgh Pirates last year, although he ended up spending most of his season hitting, pitching, and fielding for Triple-A Indianapolis. As is his wont, he was generally OK at everything. Beyond his flexibility as both a pitcher and position player, Shuck has some nice qualities, after all. He doesn’t strike out very much, and he’s disciplined enough to take walks when they’re given to him. He has about as much power as the typical Mennonite village, with eight career home runs in 1,289 major league plate appearances for a rate of 0.6%. So don’t expect him to be much of a force off the bench.

A team carries Shuck because they need a guy who can do an acceptable if not particularly good job in all three phases of the game. He takes “utility player” to a new level. The Nats were clearly intrigued enough by Shuck to sign him and bring him to camp, so expect to see him tried out in various situations this spring. He’s a dark horse for a roster spot — especially since he offers a “cheat” to the 13-pitcher roster maximum, since he’s being designated as a two-way player (meaning he doesn’t count toward the limit).

#39 – Sam Freeman

2019 stats (majors): 2 IP, 4.50 ERA, 2.50 WHIP, 0.00 K/BB
2019 stats (minors): 58⅔ IP, 6.29 ERA, 1.89 WHIP, 1.77 K/BB
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

The former Atlanta Braves left-hander best known to us at TalkNats.com as Slim Sam Freeman joined the Nats late last season on a minor league deal after being cut loose by the Los Angeles Angels. Slim Sam pitched well at Triple-A Fresno, with just one walk to eleven strikeouts and no runs allowed over six innings, but it wasn’t enough to earn him a roster spot in September. He re-signed with the Nats on a minors deal and got an invitation to major league spring training, so he’ll get another shot at making the team this year.

At his best, Freeman is capable of shutting down hitters on both sides of the plate, although he demonstrates moderate reverse platoon splits for his major league career, with a .618 OPS by righties and a .719 OPS by lefties off him. Both of those numbers are pretty good, and they suggest that if the 32-year-old can pitch to form, he could be useful in the three-batter-minimum era we’ve now entered. Unfortunately, for the bulk of Freeman’s 2019 campaign, he was getting shelled at Triple-A Salt Lake, so the Nats will have to weigh those recent bad results against the good they saw from him with the Grizzlies late last season and any positive signs he may show this spring.

Freeman has an outside shot at a bullpen spot, given that rostered southpaw Roenis Elias has been either literally or figuratively un-pitchable during his short time as a National. But there are probably stronger options available. If he doesn’t break camp with the Nats, expect Freeman to serve as valuable left-handed depth in an organization that’s lacked for it for several seasons now.

#45 – Kevin Quackenbush

2019 stats (minors): 58⅔ IP, 5.06 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 5.31 K/BB
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

If having an all-time great name is points in your favor in a spring competition, Quackenbush starts with an early leg up. Brought into the Washington organization on a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training, Quackenbush comes to the Nats after spending all of last season with the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers. He never got a shot at the bigs in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, and now the 31-year-old will try to return to The Show with the defending world champions.

Quackenbush’s toplines in 2019 weren’t very good, with an ERA just north of 5. That being said, there are some reasons for optimism. For one, Quackenbush spent all of 2019 in the Pacific Coast League, where pitchers go to die — even more so last year than in previous years, thanks in part to a turbocharged baseball. For another, Quackenbush posted decent peripherals, the most exceptional of which was a 13 K/9 that rated among the PCL’s best. The veteran right-hander gave up more than his share of runs, but he also demonstrated an ability to strike batters out, which is something that always perks up the ears of Nats GM Mike Rizzo.

Quackenbush hasn’t tasted the major leagues since a disastrous stint with the Cincinnati Reds in 2018. His last experience as a productive major league regular was with the San Diego Padres in 2016. That was a while ago now, and his results since then should weigh against Quackenbush as he tries to make the major league roster. Put another way, he’ll need to show he’s more than just an 80-grade name, or else he’ll likely spend another summer in the PCL.

#48 – Javy Guerra

2019 stats (majors): 67⅔ IP, 4.66 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 3.35 K/BB
2019 stats (minors): 7⅓ IP, 2.45 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 1.50 K/BB
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

Guerra really isn’t a new face at all, but he’s back with the Nats in a new role. A roster staple through much of 2019, and even a playoff contributor, Guerra was non-tendered by the Nats after the season ended, only to return on a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. So the long man on the championship team now finds himself battling for the last spot in the bullpen, with no guarantee he’ll get it.

Guerra was more “decent” than “great” or even “good” in 2019. He actually posted better results in a 14-inning stint with the Toronto Blue Jays, his ERA rising by a full point from after he was designated for assignment and claimed off waivers by Washington in May. But he was serviceable enough with the Nats to stick, more or less. He was the beneficiary of fellow in-season acquisition Roenis Elias’ misfortune, as the Nats pulled him back from a late-July DFA after Elias strained a hamstring in his first appearance with his new team.

One thing Guerra does reliably is throw strikes. He issues few walks and has the philosophy that he’d rather get beat on a pitch in the zone than be wild and put a batter on for free. But Guerra will need to show that he can get better results with that approach than his competition in the spring. It’s likely that Guerra will go to Triple-A and serve as bullpen depth to start the year. However, he has the advantage of familiarity, and when the Nats inevitably reach for one of those stashed depth relievers to fill a hole, Guerra could find himself back in a position he knows well.

#49 – Mac Williamson

2019 stats (majors): 40 G, .156 AVG, .508 OPS, 2.8 HR% (4), 30.6 K% (44), 9.7 BB% (14)
2019 stats (minors): 25 G, .367 AVG, 1.166 OPS, 8.5 HR% (9), 25.5 K% (27), 12.3 BB% (13)
2019 stats (KBO): 40 G, .273 AVG, .736 OPS, 2.4 HR% (4), 29.8 K% (50), 7.7 BB% (13)
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

Williamson definitely had a weird 2019, with tours in the National League (with the San Francisco Giants), the American League (with the Seattle Mariners), the Pacific Coast League (with the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers and Sacramento River Cats), and the Korean Baseball Organization League (with the Samsung Lions). This winter, he signed a minor league deal with the Nats and will be in major league spring training.

The one thing that really stands out about Williamson is that he strikes out — a lot. That’s one thing if you’re Eric Thames and your forearms are as big around as tree trunks and you can smash a high fastball into the third deck. That’s another if you’re Mac Williamson and you have more typical power production. That being said, a shiver surely ran down the spines of PCL pitchers upon reading that Williamson signed a minors deal with the Nats; he punished Triple-A pitching in both 2018 and 2019, posting a gaudy 1.215 OPS this past year with the River Cats.

Williamson is probably right back to the PCL, this time for Sacramento’s arch-rivals (insomuch as Triple-A teams in the Central Valley can have arch-rivals) in Fresno. He’ll have an outside chance at making the 26-man roster this spring, but as a right-handed hitter coming off a season in which he was dominated by top-level competition, he doesn’t seem likely to get serious consideration unless the Nats can find a trade partner for Michael A. Taylor.

#52 – Paolo Espino

2019 stats (minors): 96⅔ IP, 5.59 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 4.08 K/BB
Roster status: Non-roster invite

Joining the Nats last year for his second stint in the organization, Espino has some brief MLB experience with the Milwaukee Brewers and Texas Rangers but has never donned the Washington uniform in a regular-season game. He’s back this year with an invitation to major league spring training.

Now 33, Espino isn’t a hot item or anything like that, but he’s made a 13-year professional career as a steady, adaptable right-handed arm. He has consistently low walk rates. Unfortunately, as they’ve often been throughout his time in the minor leagues, home runs were his weakness at Triple-A Fresno last year, leading to an inflated ERA despite decent-to-good peripherals.

Espino is organizational depth, although his (limited) time in the major leagues gives him a little more credibility as an emergency option than many others in the Nats organization. He’s not contending for anything this spring, but it’s a nice opportunity for the Panamanian journeyman nonetheless.

#57 – Wil Crowe

2019 stats (minors): 149⅓ IP, 4.70 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 2.71 K/BB
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

As the closest thing the Nats have to a near-MLB top pitching prospect, it’s no surprise to see Crowe invited back for his second major league spring training. Crowe briefly featured for the Nats in their last Grapefruit League go-’round, then he made sixteen starts for Double-A Harrisburg before he was promoted to Triple-A Fresno, where he finished the season.

A big-bodied, not especially hard-throwing pitcher who is often pinned with Joe Blanton and Tanner Roark comparisons, Crowe is generally seen more as a “high-floor” prospect than as a top talent. In other words, evaluators generally agree he’ll have a major league role, but they’re also pretty sure it will be as a back-end starter or long reliever, maybe a middle reliever if his stuff plays up out of the bullpen. For now, the Nats are employing Crowe as a starting pitcher, and while he got dinged up after being promoted to Triple-A — a 4.3 BB/9 against a 6.8 K/9 is especially unattractive — he got hit pretty hard after a midseason lift to Double-A in 2018, too, and he showed much better at that intermediate level in 2019, with a 3.87 ERA and 1.12 WHIP before being shipped west.

The Nats’ starting rotation is more than full, and they’ll have their work cut out for them choosing between Joe Ross and Austin Voth to take that final spot, without the likes of Crowe beginning to factor into the equation. But expect Crowe to get some quality time working with Paul Menhart and his team before he’s sent back to the minors. The Nats don’t need him now, but an injury or two and ready or not, they could find themselves calling on the 25-year-old.

#58 – Fernando Abad

2019 stats (majors): 13 IP, 4.15 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 3.00 K/BB
2019 stats (minors): 50 IP, 2.70 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 11.00 K/BB
Contract status: Non-roster invitee

It’s been a while, but Abad is also making a homecoming of sorts. The left-handed veteran reliever last suited up for Washington in 2013. He’s bounced around the league since then, last pitching for the San Francisco Giants and their Double-A and Triple-A affiliates in 2019. He signed a minor league contract with a spring invite to return to the Nats, and he figures now as one of the more intriguing non-roster players in camp.

Abad wasn’t just good last year, he was excellent, albeit with most of his innings logged below the major league level. He limited walks masterfully, allowing just five in the minor leagues and three in the major leagues, while striking out more than a batter per nine innings in both. That being said, the sinkerballing southpaw does carry a couple of question marks. For one, he just turned 34 in December, which doesn’t make him an old man of baseball, but does certainly put him on the cusp of late middle age. For another, Abad missed significant time in 2018, due in large part to a suspension after he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. (For what it’s worth, Abad denied knowingly ingesting a banned substance and unsuccessfully appealed the suspension.)

Still, between his strong 2019 results and his past with the organization, there’s enough counting in Abad’s favor to make him a player to watch on the fringes of the 26-man roster this spring. With no settled lefty specialist in the 2020 bullpen, Abad could emerge as a top candidate for the job if he pitches this spring like he did in 2019. The details of his minor league pact with the Nats aren’t entirely known. However, given his performance last year, it would be a surprise if Abad didn’t have the leverage to negotiate an opt-out or two in his deal, allowing him to return to free agency if the Nats decide not to open a roster spot for him.

#62 – Luis Garcia

2019 stats (minors): 129 G, .257 AVG, .617 OPS, 0.1% HR (4), 15.5% K (86), 3.1% BB (17)
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

Does Garcia really count as a new face? At 18, the infielder with the soft hands was one of the youngest players in major league spring training last year. He’s a year older and with his first season in the high minors under his belt — more on that in a bit — but at 19, he still figures to be the youngest player to get much, if any, playing time with the Nats in the Grapefruit League this year.

Garcia’s stats last year were pretty underwhelming. That being said, he was a teenager playing in Double-A for the first time, so some patience is warranted. And while it’s an exaggeration to say he “caught fire” late, he did show some positive signs in August, slashing .278/.758 for the month, and he was serviceable if unspectacular in his first Arizona Fall League showing, where he hit .276/.726. His main deficit was in the power department, as he homered just four times during the season and none during the fall. Evaluators think he will mature into more power, but he already showed up for spring training last year with a more solid, muscular frame, and it’s unclear how much projection there might be remaining.

This will be a big year for Garcia, but it’s not because he has a realistic chance at breaking camp with the Nats to make his major league debut as soon as next month. Instead, this camp will give him another opportunity to work directly with the major league coaching staff, get pointers and absorb experience from veterans like Starlin Castro and Asdrubal Cabrera, and position himself for a breakout 2020. If all goes well, this time next year, he could be preparing for a much more meaningful spring.

#67 – Kyle Finnegan

2019 stats (minors): 50⅔ IP, 2.31 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 3.79 K/BB
Contract status: 40-man roster, pre-arb

When news broke that the Nats had signed Kyle Finnegan, the response was unanimous and deafening: Who’s Kyle Finnegan? It’s a fair question. The Nats chose to give Finnegan a major league deal, an unusual guarantee for a player who has yet to make his major league debut, after he became a minor league free agent at the conclusion of seven years in the Oakland Athletics organization.

Finnegan turned 28 in September, so he’s on the older side for a prospect. But as the example of Will Harris shows, age isn’t necessarily a barrier for a reliever bursting onto the scene if he has great stuff and a killer mentality. Finnegan’s minor league numbers are certainly impressive, as he struck out nearly 13 batters per nine innings last year while effectively limiting traffic. He can reportedly gas up his fastball over 95 mph and has even hit 100 mph in the past.

The Nats are hoping that lightning can strike twice. When they traded beloved starting pitcher Tanner Roark last offseason for unseasoned rookie reliever Tanner Rainey, the response from Nats fans was much the same as it was to the Finnegan signing. The best-case scenario is that Finnegan impresses much as Rainey did. The two aren’t perfect comps, with Finnegan not throwing quite as hard as Rainey but also handing out fewer free passes, but they’re close enough that it’s easy to see what general manager Mike Rizzo was thinking when he added Finnegan. While Finnegan should get a chance to win a job in spring training, it’s likelier he starts the season in the minors…as Rainey did last year before becoming a major factor in the bullpen mix down the stretch.

#68 – Bryan Bonnell

2019 stats (minors): 69⅔ IP, 3.49 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 3.88 K/BB
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

The 26-year-old journeyman right-hander figures as something of a surprise invitee to spring training with the Nats. Bonnell was cut loose by the Seattle Mariners organization last year, then signed on with Washington and did nothing but dominate — 2.83 ERA, 1.02 WHIP — over 41⅓ innings with Double-A Harrisburg. Bonnell was less impressive in much shorter stints at Triple-A Fresno and High-A Potomac, but he was a weapon for then-Senators manager Matt LeCroy out of the bullpen. Although he recorded no saves, he helped to form a sturdy bridge to closer Aaron Barrett for the playoff-bound Senators, then he re-signed with the organization after becoming a minor league free agent this past winter.

Bonnell has never been a top prospect, and his numbers as a Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners farmhand were fairly pedestrian. But he’s a Big Dude™ of the sort that Nats GM Mike Rizzo covets, standing 6-foot-5 with a sturdy frame. Scouting reports on him don’t suggest an especially hard thrower, with average-ish low to mid-90s velocity. Notably, he demonstrated sharp platoon splits in 2019, dominating right-handed batters to the tune of a .517 OPS but getting socked by left-handed batters at an .870 OPS.

This is probably just a feel-good invite for Bonnell, rewarding him for signing on with Washington last year and re-upping this winter, especially since he pitched so well for the Senators. A good spring could put him on the map as a realistic possibility for an injury call-up later in the season.

#70 – Ben Braymer

2019 stats (minors): 139 IP, 4.53 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 2.07 K/BB
Contract status: 40-man roster, pre-arb

The conventional wisdom on the last day for teams to protect minor leaguers from the Rule 5 draft was that one pitcher, Sterling Sharp, was a virtual lock, and one other pitcher, Ben Braymer, was likely. In one of the biggest surprise moves of the offseason, the Nats chose only to protect Braymer, effectively giving Sharp away to the division-rival Marlins, who will try to keep him on their 26-man roster all year to “lock in” at least five more years of team control over the wiry Michigander.

Braymer is a less-regarded prospect than Sharp, but there are a couple of key differences between the two that may explain why the Nats protected him instead. One, he has experience at Triple-A, although that came last year in the form of a bloody 7.20 ERA over 13 starts. Two, he’s left-handed, making him a rarity among Nats pitchers (there are only four of them on the 40-man roster). Braymer doesn’t throw particularly hard, but he’s had success at every level below Triple-A. And with Taylor Guilbeau and Aaron Fletcher traded to the Seattle Mariners last year, Braymer is now the sole vanguard of a small wave of left-handers making progress through the farm system.

There’s probably no room in the Opening Day bullpen for Braymer, and the Nats will likely want to see better results from him at Triple-A before entrusting him with a major league role. The best case for Braymer is that he masters the curve in Fresno and puts himself in a position to be called up during the season as a lefty specialist or long reliever. There’s an outside chance he could continue starting even at the major league level, but there are several names ahead of him on the rotational depth chart right now, and possibly more to come.

#71 – Dakota Bacus

2019 stats (minors): 56⅓ IP, 3.51 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 1.89 K/BB
Contract status: Non-roster invitee

It’s a nice storyline for Bacus to finally earn an invitation to spring training, seven years after the Nats acquired him from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for some guy named Kurt Suzuki. A minor league free agent this past winter, Bacus chose to re-sign with the Nats, and they invited him to his first big league camp.

Bacus, 29 in April, isn’t known for his exceptional stuff, although he did post a gaudy 11.7 K/9 at Double-A Harrisburg in 2018. His strikeout rate regressed in 2019, and he struggled with his walk rate last year as well. Despite so-so peripherals, his topline results at Triple-A Fresno were fairly impressive, considering it’s an extremely hitter-friendly league. A dedicated reliever these days, he was converted from starting in mid-2015. He’s never been considered a top prospect.

This is pretty obviously a feel-good invite for Bacus, who will get a chance to hobnob with some of the game’s best pitchers for at least a couple weeks before going back to the minors side. Look for him to get a few middle relief appearances, the role he served — and likely will serve again — for the Grizzlies last year.

#72 – Jhonatan German

2019 stats (minors): 64⅔ IP, 2.78 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 4.14 K/BB
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

One of the Nats’ best pitching prospects you’ve probably never heard of, right-handed flamethrower Jhonatan German just turned 25 and is coming off a fine year that saw him bound across three levels, from Single-A Hagerstown to Double-A Harrisburg, with a strong finish at the uppermost level. German ranks #28 among Nats prospects according to MLB.com, and he could rise higher in the upcoming preseason refresh.

German throws pretty hard, with scouting reports saying he can reach back for 98 mph when he needs it and still get good movement on the pitch. He’s also got a slider and a changeup that have been coming along. Despite being a power arm, German’s peripherals look more like the profile of a crafty veteran, as he walked fewer than two batters per nine innings in 2019 while striking out just over eight per nine innings. Often, these hard throwers are wild, with high walk rates and high strikeout rates, but German seemed to trust his ability to get outs on pitches in the zone.

Obscurity aside, German actually has a great opportunity this spring. The obvious comp for him as a mid-20s reliever from the Latin American program is fellow Dominican righty Wander Suero, who used a couple of strong minor league seasons and spring training stints to ultimately force his way into the Nats’ roster mix a couple years ago. German isn’t going to be a favorite to break camp, but he’s certainly a dark horse in the bullpen conversation. Most likely, he’s pitching for a 40-man roster spot later on or after the season, since he’ll be eligible for the Rule 5 draft in December.

#74 – Taylor Gushue

Taylor Gushue

2019 stats (minors): 74 G, .312 AVG, .875 OPS, 3.8 HR% (11), 21.9 K% (63), 6.9 BB% (20)
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

The switch-hitting backstop Gushue has become something of a spring training staple for the Nats. This is the third year in a row that Gushue has been called to major league camp, all with Washington.

All that being said, Gushue has not cracked a major league roster yet, nor has he seriously threatened to. It’s not because his numbers are bad; on the contrary, he’s been a consistently above-average hitter at his position since joining the Washington organization. And the Nats wouldn’t keep bringing him back for spring training if pitchers disliked working with him. No, the simple cold truth is that Gushue lacks a carry tool, so he has never had much prospect cachet — he just briefly cracked the Nats’ organizational top 30, more than a year ago now — and he’s now solidly on the wrong side of 25, which is awfully late for a catching prospect to turn things around.

The flip side is that Gushue has been a dependable minor league depth piece for the Nats for a few seasons now, and that’s probably not going to change in 2020. By now, the Nats pretty much know what they have in Gushue, and while he probably won’t be a major-leaguer in D.C. unless there are a few coinciding injuries, at least he’s there in the event that happens. Expect to see him back in Triple-A Fresno, but since catchers are in high demand every spring, don’t be surprised if he stays on the major league side of camp until the bitter end (or close to it).

#75 – Drew Ward

2019 stats (minors): 90 G, .269 AVG, .834 OPS, 5.2 HR% (18), 37.4 K% (130), 6.6 BB% (23)
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

Don’t look now, but is Drew Ward maybe, kinda, sorta finally putting it all together? After a lousy tour with Triple-A Syracuse in 2018 (good riddance to that place), the 2013 third-round draftee earned a fresh promotion to Triple-A Fresno midway through the 2019 season and turned in a .288/.883 slash line with the Grizzlies, homering eight times in 30 games. Despite being long predicted to eventually move to first base, Ward has mostly stuck at third base, logging the vast majority of his innings at third last year and doing a respectable, if not elite, job of it. At 25, now heading into his eighth professional year, has Ward finally turned the corner?

Well…that would be nice, but probably not. And that really begins and ends with his strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is perennially atrocious and only got worse in 2019. You can’t strike out 37% of the time and only walk 6% of the time. Yes, Ward has power, but even if he was hitting twice as many homers, he’d still look marginal at best with those kind of peripherals. Ward is aggressive at the plate, and good pitchers can exploit him and strike him out. At this point, that will probably never change.

As a left-handed batter who can play a competent third base, expect there could be buzz around Ward this spring, with the Nats in want of both a strong lefty bat and a bona fide third baseman — especially if Ward comes out of the gate with a long home run or two. But it’s caveat emptor all the way with Ward. He’ll have to not just put up a mid-.800s OPS in 2020, but prove he’s more than a swing-from-the-heels strikeout machine, if he’s to realistically position himself as something more than organizational filler.

#76 – Jakson Reetz

2019 stats (minors): 96 G, .253 AVG, .812 OPS, 3.4 HR% (13), 24.5 K% (95), 11.9 BB% (46)
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

It’s great to see 24-year-old Jakson Reetz back in action and healthy enough to participate in spring training. A fine year for Reetz that included an invitation to the Arizona Fall League was cut slightly short when Reetz suffered an injury in fall ball, forcing the Nats to turn to part-time backstop KJ Harrison to replace him.

It kind of seems like Reetz has been around forever, and his star has certainly waned from the days when he was considered a borderline top-ten organizational prospect for the Nats. But that often comes with the territory, along with a considerable amount of risk, when drafting a player out of high school — and particularly a catcher. Reetz finally put together a solid regular-season campaign at age 23, albeit entirely at High-A Potomac, a level he probably should have graduated by now. But with his first invitation to major league spring training, he’ll have a chance to work with major league pitchers and get tips from major league catchers, which can only be good for his development.

Having just turned 24, there is still a perfectly decent chance Reetz will end up playing in the big leagues, whether it’s with Washington or somewhere else, whether it’s for a few games or whether he can stick it out for a few years. He’s not a candidate to make the team out of spring training. Instead, he’ll be an extra catcher, and hopefully a sponge as he’s surrounded by top talent and wise old men of baseball. His aim will be to force his way onto the 40-man roster before reaching minor league free agency at the end of the season.

#77 – Derek Self

Derek Self

2019 stats (minors): 74⅔ IP, 5.91 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 3.44 K/BB
Roster status: Non-roster invitee

It’s been a long road for Self since the Nats drafted him in the ninth round all the way back in 2012. He’s spent his entire career in the Washington organization with little to show for it. This is his first invitation to a major league spring training, and he just recently turned 30 years old.

So this is a nice treat for Self, who is coming off kind of a weird year. He was actually very good for the first part of the season. In fact, at the end of the first half, Self had a more than respectable 3.32 ERA and was holding batters to a .701 OPS. Unfortunately, in the back half of the season, the wheels came off. Never a big strikeout arm, Self’s K rate crashed from mediocre to dismal, and his home run rate shot through the roof, as he struck out 21 batters and gave up nine homers in 34 innings from June 21 through the end of the season. He posted a 9.00 ERA over that stretch and had a 1.076 OPS against. In one distinctly nightmarish appearance against El Paso, he gave up six earned runs in less than two innings.

The Nats brought Self to camp for one or both of two reasons. One, it’s a nice thing to do to reward a career organizational player for his service. Two, they think his second half was a fluke or is otherwise correctable, and they might have a usable right-hander in Self, even if he is 30, doesn’t have a roster spot, and has never had much prospect billing. There’s virtually no chance Self makes the team unless there are a ton of injuries, but for fans of the farm system, it’ll be worth watching to see if Self can right the ship and return to form for what will probably be another full season in Fresno.

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