As the magician says, “Pick a card, any card from the deck” of fifty-two cards is a much easier trick than trying to make the Opening Day roster as an NRI (non-roster invitee), but it is possible. In a blind pick of one card from a full deck to say get the 10-of-hearts with no magic involved has only a 1.92% probability, and the chance that an NRI makes the team is actually higher than that. That’s the good news, and we’re telling you there is a chance. If Clint Robinson was standing here today (he kind of is), he would tell you as living — breathing proof, that there is a chance.
Assessing non-roster players in camp is difficult because you are dealing with small sample sizes of Spring Training plus many matchups (pitcher to batter) are not always MLB quality. Unfortunately even for NRIs who make it, their time on the roster could be short lived. Jake Noll lasted just 8 games and 13 plate appearances last year with a .167 batting average and his highlight walk-off walk on April 3rd against the Phillies. He was optioned to Triple-A Fresno the very next day to make room for a guy named Howie Kendrick who was activated from the IL. Thanks to Kendrick, Noll will have a World Series ring that he earned.
In 2008 when the Nats were thin for talent, the odds were much better for an NRI to make the Nats roster, but a dozen years later the chances are slim to none. Not only do you have to unseed a player already on the 40-man roster but also potentially a player who finished the season on the active roster. Still it can happen, and everyone wants to be the next Clint Robinson who contributed to two Nats teams and two full seasons from 2015-2016.
“Best way to describe being an NRI in ML camp is that it’s a roller coaster of emotions,” Robinson told me today for this article. “As a mostly unknown 6 year minor league free agent, I went into that camp (in 2015) with pretty low expectations to actually make the club, and just hoped that I could make enough of an impact to open eyes to be in the conversations during the year when a reinforcement was needed. As it got closer to heading north, you start to get excited but then you have to reel yourself back in so you don’t become a zoo when your on the field.”
“I remember getting all the way to the end of the exhibition versus the New York Yankees, and being told I made the club and the emotions just took over. Literally had to retreat to the closet in the training room to call my wife so everyone wouldn’t have to witness me balling tears when I told her. One of the best moments of my life.”
Emotions have to run deep for any player who is a long-shot. One thing you can expect from Clint Robinson is honesty and straight answers and expressing his feelings. In 2016, Robinson was a lock for that bench even though he had a new manager that year. This year, Noll’s spring training invite was automatic to big league camp because he is still on the 40-man roster, but his odds are long because he didn’t supplant himself as a regular last year. He joins players like Wilmer Difo, Adrian Sanchez, Michael Taylor, Andrew Stevenson, Raudy Read, and Tres Barrera who are all competing for bench spots. Also, there is the Nats top prospect, Carter Kieboom, who is competing for the starting third base spot on the Opening Day roster. That list is just the position players. Add to that all of the starting pitchers and relievers on the 40-man roster like Joe Ross, Austin Voth and Erick Fedde who are all competing for one spot in the starting rotation.
The bullpen is even more crowded. There will most likely be an eight man bullpen which is part of the 13-man squad of pitchers that MLB caps teams at now. One name to watch is Hunter Strickland. He is on a $1.6 non-guaranteed deal, and if the Nats cut him early, they will only owe him 1/6th of that amount. That could open up a spot for a player in camp to get on the roster. Other 40-man pitchers trying to crack the roster include the popular Aaron Barrett, Ryne Harper, Kyle Finnegan, James Bourque, Ben Braymer, Austen Williams, and Kyle McGowin.
Most of these faces above are unrecognizable by the majority of fans especially since Bourque shaved off that distinctive throwback mustache. Good luck trying to pick Bryan Bonnell or Jakson Reetz from a lineup.
Making the roster as a backup infielder seems to be a battle between Kieboom, Difo, and Sanchez. While Jacob Wilson and Brandon Snyder (NRIs) want spots, the odds are long for them and Noll because the infield is so crowded. It is possible that none of these players make the Opening Day roster given that Asdrubal Cabrera, Howie Kendrick, Starlin Castro, Eric Thames, Ryan Zimmerman, and Trea Turner seem to all be locks if healthy. That is six men for four spots. Two to the bench plus plus the backup catcher only leaves two spots for either backup outfielders or hybrid players like Emilio Bonifacio and JB Shuck. The reason Cabrera was re-signed was because he can play every position in the infield.
“That’s when I started to think to prepare my mind, my body to play any position,” Cabrera said. “Shortstop was my favorite position, but I mean … I’m thinking about what’s going to happen now and tomorrow.”
While Shuck and Bonifacio are both listed as outfielders, Shuck can pitch and Bonifacio can play infield. Manager Dave Martinez has spoken about the positives with positional flexibility before. Martinez played five different positions in the Majors during his MLB career and even pitched 1 1/3 innings for the Montreal Expos and Chicago White Sox. He has to admire what J.B. Shuck has done in his career.
“It certainly helps when players can cover multiple positions,” Martinez said.
The outfield spot is probably the thinnest on the 40-man roster. Beyond Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Adam Eaton it is just Taylor and Stevenson. It really has to give some hope to the NRIs like Shuck, Bonifacio, Mac Williamson, and Yadiel Hernandez. For the Cuban free agent, he was the Nationals minor league player of the year last year showing his power stroke in Fresno with 33 bombs and a 1.009 OPS. Hernandez is 32 years old and that works against him in his quest to make the roster.
If there was the remote opportunity to trade Michael A. Taylor as some have theorized, then you could see an opening for one of those names possibly. Last year, Taylor was injured to start the season which gave Stevenson a spot on the roster making health the most likely factor for an NRI.
The same for the catcher spot that only has two 40-man backups in Read and Barrera. On the NRI list, Welington Castillo is injured leaving just Reetz and Taylor Gushue. There was a time when Reetz was considered a top-10 prospect and that was before he suffered injuries that set back his career.
When you look at the pitchers, you have former Nats reliever Fernando Abad who is an interesting lefty on the list of those NRIs. Shuck is a lefty pitcher as well and already has one scoreless inning of relief behind him with a 9.00 K/9 and an 87 mph fastball. Who else looks interesting from that long list? There is Javy Guerra who served as a key long-man in the 2019 ‘pen and signed back on a minor league deal. Nats fans already know Sam Freeman from the NL East, and David Hernandez from the NL West who were both invited to Spring Training. There is also Kevin Quackenbush and Las Vegas native Bryan Bonnell who wants to impress for a job. Then there is a quintet of names familiar to Nats minor league affiliates like Wil Crowe, Jhonatan German, Paolo Espino, Derek Self, and Dakota Bacus.