At a time you would expect the butterflies to be swirling in the mid-section of players as they approached the pre-game of Opening Day which has been postponed most likely for at least two months due to COVID-19, the Washington Nationals made cuts instead. In total, six players have been sent to Minor League camp while still on the 40-man roster and getting paid as they were before this move. Given all of the horror and disruption in our lives due to the coronavirus pandemic, in the proper perspective these “cuts” are nothing earth-shattering and at some point these cuts were expected and were going to be made. Although these moves were widely anticipated, it is really about the unusual timing that is a bit odd. Maybe it was done so fewer players were kept hanging during this long break. There are now thirty-six players in camp with ten more cuts to go to pare this roster down to the requisite twenty-six for the real Opening Day. Notables remaining in camp are 19-year-old prospect Luis Garcia, and top prospect Carter Kieboom as well as NRI veteran utilityman Emilio Bonifacio and of course Wilmer Difo who is on a non-guaranteed $1 million deal.
There is a total of twelve who look to be on the fence and two should get chosen from this group it appears of which you have Garcia, Kieboom, Bonifacio, Difo, and veteran catcher Welington Castillo along with the bullpen arms of Austen Williams, Ryne Harper along with four NRI relievers of Sam Freeman, Fernando Abad, Javy Guerra and Kevin Quackenbush.
The following “cuts” were made today:
The starting rotation (5)
With Fedde sent to the Minors, it looks clearer that the rotation is set with Joe Ross as the 5th starter in this rotation of aces. There could always be a push by Austin Voth, and have learned to never say it is a done deal.
The bullpen (8)
When Hunter Strickland was DFA’d over a week ago it opened up one spot for sure. It looks like the long-man will be Voth, and the question on who the eighth man in the ‘pen is should be solved by Opening Day. Take your choice of the six remaining looking from the outside. James Bourque looked like he had a good shot, but he was sent back today with Kyle Finnegan and Erick Fedde.
Austen Williams, and Ryne Harper are all still in “camp” as 40-man players with minor league options along with four NRI relievers that include lefties Sam Freeman and Fernando Abad, and righties Javy Guerra and Kevin Quackenbush.
The catchers (2)
After rookie Tres Barrera was cut today, just veteran NRI Welington Castillo remains with the two probable catchers of Kurt Suzuki and defensive specialist Yan Gomes. The larger debate is probably just to who catches Scherzer, Sanchez, and the fifth starter.
The infield (6)
The Sao Magnifico assessment of the infielders is spot on: 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 (cut today) 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)
Also from Sao Magnifico is the outfielder discussion: 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.
With Andrew Stevenson gone, 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. With only Hernandez and Bonifacio remaining in “camp” but it looks 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.