The news has moved so fast that it’s strange to think that, barely more than a week ago, the Washington Nationals were still playing Grapefruit League games. It’s strange, too, to think that if not for the coronavirus pandemic that has paralyzed North America and much of the rest of the world, the Nats would still be playing spring training games. Opening Day isn’t until next Thursday, or at least, it would have been if it weren’t postponed due to the pandemic.
Right now, it’s unclear when, or if, teams will get back on the field this year. The most pessimistic models suggest it could take until late 2021 for us to put the pandemic firmly in the rear-view mirror, and until then, it won’t be safe for groups of people to gather. More optimistic thinkers say there’s still a chance the worst will be behind us in a couple of months, but optimism seems to be in as short of supply as medical masks and ventilators as the numbers just get worse.
Nevertheless, the business of baseball churns on, albeit at a low level and mostly behind-the-scenes. It’s like a hibernating animal, in a deep slumber, its metabolic functions slowed as it awaits a safe time to come out — but not dead.
Over the weekend, the Nats tossed us a scrap of baseball news when they released struggling right-handed reliever Hunter Strickland. It was a move many of us were surprised the Nats didn’t make two weeks ago, when they could have only been responsible for one-sixth of Strickland’s 2020 salary as termination pay. As it is, they owe Strickland just under one-quarter of what he would have made as a National this year.
With baseball, and much of the rest of our society and economy, in a strange and indefinite limbo, it’s faintly amusing to consider that the Nats have yet to make their final cuts for a season that’s a big ol’ question mark right now. The team still has 42 players in “camp”, including eight non-roster invitees. Spring training is a chance for NRIs to impress and earn a roster spot. Of course, spring training is not happening right now, so how can general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Dave Martinez evaluate who they want on the team? Will these NRIs stay in the organization until spring training returns in May, or June, or July, or 2021?
Thinking about all of these questions makes my head hurt. So let’s try to make some best guesses about who the Nats would have on the 26-man roster if they really were going to start their 162-game season on March 26.
The starting rotation (5)
I think we all knew that Joe Ross is who the Nats want, and have wanted all along, to be the fifth starter. Ross pitched well this spring, despite struggling with command in his last start. Austin Voth arguably outpitched Ross, but the same was true in 2019 and yet Ross still entered spring training as the clear favorite for the rotation spot.
The other four here are obvious. While all of the Nats’ veteran starters had some bumps in Grapefruit League play, that’s entirely to be expected and seems no cause for concern.
The bullpen (8)
Strickland was supposed to slot into a middle relief role in the 2020 bullpen, but now he’s out of the picture. That opens the door for either a rostered reliever who had been expected to start the season in the minor leagues, or one of the four remaining non-roster players in “camp”.
The Nats seem likely to assign Fedde in particular to a starting role in the high minors. Williams and Finnegan flashed good stuff but generally struggled in spring play, as did Harper to a somewhat lesser extent. Bourque had an impressive run of appearances and has a sterling 11:1 K/BB ratio for the spring, so alone among this group of five, let’s not write him off just yet.
On the NRI side, still standing are lefties Sam Freeman and Fernando Abad, and righties Javy Guerra and Kevin Quackenbush. For the Nats, Guerra and Abad are both known quantities, having suited up for the team before.
Guerra was a member of the championship team in 2019 and pitched in the playoffs. The Nats like him enough to have brought him back on a minor league deal even after releasing him to avoid paying him arbitration, and Guerra rewarded their faith with six scoreless appearances in the Grapefruit League. However, the Nats have to know this is still the same Javy Guerra who had an ERA just under 5 over 53⅔ innings with Washington last season, and while he’s shown some sizzle on his fastball, his stuff is never going to blow a lot of hitters away. Still, his spring performance was fun to watch and points in his favor.
Abad hasn’t played for the Nats since 2013, and he’s been well-traveled in that time, even spending most of 2019 in the minor leagues. But the Nats know what Abad gives them: a solid left-handed option with far better command than lefties of years past (Jonny Venters, Tim Collins, Enny Romero…) and a veteran mindset that allows him to go right after hitters in any game situation and any count. Abad only allowed one baserunner in four spring appearances. However, he also only struck out a pair of hitters in that time. Of note, the Nats deployed him both as a fireman and as a two-inning reliever, suggesting they see him as a Swiss army knife reliever who could fill a variety of roles.
Freeman finished the 2019 season in the Nats minor league system, but he never got a call-up. The Nats know him well from his time with the Atlanta Braves, who frequently called on him to match up with former Nats outfielder Bryce Harper. But “Slim Sam” is not the quietly consistent lefty-killer of yesteryear, and in fact, he spent most of 2019 getting roughed up at Triple-A before landing with the Fresno Grizzlies. Freeman had a nice run this spring until coughing up three runs in one very rocky outing. Still, the Nats have to like his 8:1 K/BB ratio.
If the Grapefruit League hadn’t been unceremoniously put on hiatus, Quackenbush might have ended up being the story of the spring from Nats camp. Originally used in “garbage time” situations, like finishing up games after both teams had already subbed in players called over from minor league camp for the day, Quackenbush ended up excelling and earning some higher-leverage looks. Over six spring appearances, he was not scored upon, with a 6:1 K/BB ratio. Like Freeman (although not quite to the same extent), Quackenbush took his lumps in the minor leagues last year, but he still struck out 13 batters per nine innings, something that tends to catch Mike Rizzo’s eye.
Ultimately, this decision probably would have come down to the last couple weeks of spring play, and it’s hard to know if the Nats were leaning in a particular direction before everything went into deep freeze. So I’ll insert my own thinking: While I believe Roenis Elias likely would have made the roster, I don’t think the Nats would have trusted him as a lefty specialist after he exhibited huge reverse platoon splits in 2019, and the rest of the projected bullpen (save for closer Sean Doolittle) is right-handed. Unless Abad and Freeman both imploded as Opening Day drew near, I think the Nats would choose between the two of them, with the surplus right-handers functioning as depth…
But wait! We never got to see Will Harris summit the mound, since he hadn’t been cleared for game action by the time the pandemic shut the Grapefruit League down. We cannot assume he would have been cleared to pitch and ramped up in time for Opening Day; it seemed unlikely before the hiatus, and it seems especially unlikely in retrospect.
At this point, roster math comes into play. The Nats have 39 players on their 40-man roster, since they jettisoned Hunter Strickland. They appeared likely to clear another spot at the end of camp (more on that in a bit), but it’s unclear whether that spot would go to a pitcher. And while the Nats could cut another player — someone like Kyle McGowin or Jake Noll, who have been trimmed from the spring roster and appear to be well down the depth chart — to clear another spot, it only seems plausible they would do that if an NRI were 1) so far above his rostered competition as to defy comparison, and 2) able and resolved to opt out of his contract if not promoted to the 40-man roster.
Adding a further wrinkle here: Harris’ injury is not believed to be structural, and if all were normal, we’d reasonably expect him to be ready for action sometime in April. If the Nats promoted Guerra, Freeman, or Quackenbush to keep a spot warm, they would have to choose between DFAing that former NRI or another reliever, or optioning one of Wander Suero or Tanner Rainey, once Harris is ready to be activated.
The projection here will vary depending on whether the exercise is to indulge the fantasy of a kid yelling “play ball” at Citi Field on March 26, or to project what the roster will look like if and when Opening Day 2020 rolls around. Our premise is the former, but in the spirit of optimism, I’ll indicate the latter in parentheses and italics:
The catchers (2)
This requires little discussion. While the Nats still haven’t cleared rookie Tres Barrera nor veteran NRI Welington Castillo out of “camp”, the team was happy with the combined performance of offensive specialist Kurt Suzuki and defensive specialist Yan Gomes last year. The timeshare between the two catchers means that neither is expected to have disproportionate wear-and-tear, making a third catcher all the more unnecessary.
If the Grapefruit League were still being played, Barrera and Castillo would be able to continue to provide Suzuki and Gomes some relief. But come Opening Day, expect them to be back in the minors (or, perhaps in Castillo’s case, back on the free agent market).
The infield (6)
Here we get into controversial territory. The Nats stressed throughout spring training camp that their Plan A was for top prospect Carter Kieboom to be their 2020 third baseman. The problem, of course, is that Kieboom had hardly ever played third base before, and when he was given regular playing time at the position in Grapefruit League action, it was quite evident. Kieboom committed three errors, miraculously escaped a fourth error on a ball that shot between his legs Bill Buckner-style, and failed to make several other (less routine) plays that Anthony Rendon probably would have made in his sleep.
Another factor works against Kieboom, and it’s unclear how it will be affected by a shortened or canceled 2020 season. Because he spent some time with the Nats in 2019, the Nats would have needed to send him back to the minor leagues for about four weeks at some point in 2020 — if this were a normal year — to lock in team control over his 2026 season. The math on this is now scrambled, and MLB and the MLBPA are reportedly negotiating over how service time will be calculated for 2020 under a range of scenarios that would mean less or no baseball for us this year. Let’s come back to this.
Most of the infield projection is straightforward: Eric Thames is the primary first baseman versus right-handed pitching, with Ryan Zimmerman as the primary option against left-handed pitching. Starlin Castro is the everyday second baseman. Howie Kendrick fits into the first/second base picture somewhere, although he’s mostly a well-paid pinch-hitter if everyone is healthy. Asdrubal Cabrera can play all four infield positions, although he’s best suited to second and third base, and he looks like the starting third baseman if Kieboom is in the minors. Trea Turner, obviously, is the shortstop.
So, that’s six, but it notably doesn’t include a backup shortstop. That’s OK — the Nats got by without a backup shortstop on the roster for stretches of 2019, and they ended up winning the World Series. In an emergency, Cabrera could move to shortstop and Kendrick could take over at third base. It isn’t ideal, and there’s no redundancy behind that, but as a mid-game substitution if Turner were to, say, break a bone in his hand or wrist, it’s serviceable. Rizzo probably has Adrian Sanchez on speed-dial at this point anyway.
I haven’t mentioned Wilmer Difo, other than an oblique reference earlier. Again, this is a decision the Nats likely make on a coronavirus-free Earth 2 sometime over the next few days between now and Opening Day. As with Strickland, they chose not to cut Difo loose when they could have only paid one-sixth of his salary, and Difo hasn’t been cut yet. But on the heels of an abysmal 2018 and 2019, the latter of which saw him spend much of the season in the minor leagues, and considering he was hitting .133/.333 through 15 Grapefruit League games, the writing’s on the wall.
Cutting Difo would open both a bench spot and a 40-man roster spot. It’s possible the former could be filled by Cabrera, shifted into a familiar reserve role with Kieboom taking over as the full-time third baseman. But to me, it seems likelier that Kieboom starts in the minors, to get more reps at third base in games that don’t matter to the big league club if not to game his service time so the Nats get that extra year of team control.
There’s also the aforementioned Adrian Sanchez, who had a solid showing in spring action and can back up four or five different positions. But Sanchez still has a minor league option remaining, and since he’s not a great hitter, his only real utility would be as an injury reserve. He can serve that role just as well in Double-A Harrisburg, with the infield configured well enough to absorb an injury to Turner, Cabrera, or Castro in an emergency.
One quick mention here of the only other infielder in “camp” we haven’t talked about already: Luis Garcia, 19, who had the best spring training of any Nationals player. There are some legit reasons to be excited about what we saw of Garcia, given his youth, his makeup, and his defensive skills. When and if the minor leagues pick up play this year, it will be fascinating to see if he can build on the power he flashed last fall and this spring. If he can, he has five-tool potential.
The outfield (5)
Separating out infielders and outfielders is tricky sometimes. The roster decisions made in the infield affect the outfield mix, and vice versa.
We can get our starting trio out of the way right fast: Juan Soto is your 2020 left fielder, Adam Eaton is your 2020 right fielder, and Victor Robles is your 2020 center fielder. The primary backup to all three is equally obvious: Michael A. Taylor had an uncharacteristically poor spring training, but the Nats love him, and his value is largely tied up in his defense anyway.
So who is the 26th man for the roster, and why do I think it’s an outfielder?
The Nats have spent the spring evaluating how one player in particular fits into a variety of situations. That player is, for whatever reason, journeyman Emilio Bonifacio. Briefly a National back in 2008, Bonifacio is now almost 35 (in April) and has reinvented himself as a center fielder rather than a utility infielder. But the Nats’ deployment of Bonifacio suggested they see him in a hybrid role, able to back up outfield positions but also fill in on the infield, including at shortstop. Never much of a home run hitter (he has 13 across parts of 11 major league seasons), Bonifacio retooled his swing last year and hit eight homers for Triple-A Durham, and he homered in a spring training game this year and hit some other deep drives that didn’t quite carry out of the park.
There’s limits to reason for optimism about Bonifacio. For one, he didn’t take a walk in 30 plate appearances this spring. For another, he hasn’t played in the majors since a brief, pitiful stint with Atlanta in 2017. But the Nats telegraphed interest in Bonifacio as a “26th man” type of player from the get-go in spring training, and Bonifacio delivered with a .333/.833 batting line and capable defense at multiple positions. Just as with Ross and the fifth starter job, all along, it has seemed that Bonifacio is their guy.
Other hopefuls for a roster spot not yet addressed: Andrew Stevenson, whom the Nats love as a contact-oriented fifth outfielder, and Yadiel Hernandez, who dominated Pacific Coast League pitching last year and earned an invite to major league camp. Stevenson had a decent spring showing with a .276/.710 batting line, but he has a minor league option remaining and he can’t play any infield positions. Hernandez had a pretty disappointing spring, with a .162/.522 batting line, and he’s defensively limited to the corner outfield. Both remain in “camp” but look like outfield depth come Opening Day, with Stevenson far likelier to get the call if the need arises than the 32-year-old Hernandez, for whom the Nats would need to open a 40-man roster spot.