What’s left to be decided at #Nats spring training camp?

Kyle McGowin strikes out Marcell Ozuna; Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

There’s just three Grapefruit League games remaining on the Washington Nationals’ schedule before they head north. Opening Day is less than a week away.

We’ve talked a lot about spring training stats, but we know that on Opening Day, everyone starts out 0-for-0 and without an ERA. What matters is what players do when the games actually count.

Still, for players on the roster bubble, spring stats can be very important. And the Nats still have some decisions to make and questions that will have to be answered. Especially with Juan Soto exiting Thursday night’s game against the Miami Marlins with a calf cramp, at the forefront of those questions is health.

Starlin Castro is in an odd place less than a week before Opening Day; Photo by Katie Moran for TalkNats

Who’s healthy enough to make the team?

The Nats are hoping this isn’t a big problem. But they expect veteran reliever Will Harris to begin the season on the injured list with a blood clot in his throwing arm, and they’re monitoring a group of other players as well.

Starlin Castro was expected to be the Nats’ starting second baseman, although there’s a chance he slides over to third base. We haven’t seen too much of him at third, because in his first game at the new position, he suffered a hamstring strain and had to leave the game. The Nats have described this strain as “very mild” and say Castro is day-to-day, but with Opening Day right around the corner, Castro doesn’t have much time to get back to full health before the Nats will have to make a decision.

“These are very similar injuries and should recover relatively quickly. It’s the more severe muscles strains that can take a longer time to recover and if they occur preseason to mid-season, they can be season lingering injuries. A Grade II strain is a partial muscle tear and a Grade III is a muscle tear. A cramp recovers within minutes to hours and a Grade I can last a few days to a week,” said Dr. Faucett, an orthopaedic surgeon at The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics as he told Steve Mears on the Castro issue. Now we are in a wait-and-see on Soto’s calf.

Juan Soto is the Nats’ starting right fielder, and there’s optimism that this calf cramp is a transitory issue that won’t have any lasting effects. Still, it’s concerning, since Opening Day is close, Soto has struggled with his timing at the plate, and Castro’s leg injury earlier this week was also initially described as a cramp. We are still awaiting more details.

Tanner Rainey has appeared in two games now, with mixed results. Rainey is expected to be one of the Nats’ top setup men and is considered the team’s “closer of the future”, but he was shut down early in camp with what was described as a muscle strain in his collarbone area. While it’s encouraging that Rainey has worked his way back to the mound, he’s still sitting a few miles per hour below his career average fastball velocity, and his command remains shaky. While it’s not surprising he’s having these issues, since he’s weeks behind everyone else and coming off an injury that would affect his pitching motion, he also doesn’t have much time left to get right.

Gerardo Parra might be considered the favorite at this point to be the Nats’ fourth outfielder, if not for the fact that he’s not quite 100% either. Manager Davey Martinez has been candid that he would like Parra to be on the team, but he recently characterized him as being at 85-90% months after undergoing right knee surgery in 2020. Parra did get his first action in center field of the spring against the Marlins on Thursday, so if the Nats are encouraged by his progress there over the last four days of camp, he could be deemed ready. But again, there’s not a lot of time left.

Andrew Stevenson skies for the catch! (Photo from Nationals official Instagram)

Who has to make the team or (possibly) be lost?

This question applies both to a couple of players on the 40-man roster and a small handful of veteran non-roster invitees.

The Nats received some surprising and unwelcome news earlier this week when an arbiter ruled that Erick Fedde no longer has a minor league option, something the team expected to be able to exercise after not using the fourth option granted over him last season. Options are a somewhat confusing bit of the official rules, but to summarize, after using Fedde’s three minor league options in 2017, 2018, and 2019, the Nats were determined to have the right to option him again in 2020 because Fedde had not yet played five full professional seasons. But now that Fedde has played more than five professional seasons, an arbiter determined the fourth option is now void. That means the Nats can’t send Fedde to the minor leagues without designating him for assignment and exposing him to waivers, meaning another team could claim him.

We have no clarity at this point as to whether outfielder Andrew Stevenson has a fourth option, but some other players in his position — namely, they were on their third minor league option in 2020 and it was exercised, but the MLB season last year was short and so they didn’t spend the requisite 90 days on an active roster — have been deemed to have fourth options. Assuming this ruling is applied consistently, the Nats will be able to send Stevenson to the minors at will without exposing him to waivers this year. If that’s the case, and if Parra is deemed healthy and ready to contribute, then Stevenson needs to actually earn the fourth outfielder job. Over 44 plate appearances, he hasn’t done much: a .237/.630 slash line that may point the Nats toward the disappointing conclusion that his hot streak in September was nothing more than that, a hot streak.

And then there are the NRIs who still have a chance of making the team. The Nats know the contract situations for these players, even if they haven’t yet been reported. Can Hernán Pérez, making a strong bid to make the team as a do-it-all utilityman, opt out of his minor league contract with the Nats if he hasn’t been added to the roster by Opening Day? What about Jordy Mercer, a veteran infielder who could provide some credible depth if Castro is still ailing and Carter Kieboom is judged to need more time on the farm? Or Luis Avilán, probably the most promising of the Nats’ crop of NRI pitchers and a legitimate candidate to make the bullpen as a lefty specialist? What about Parra or Javy Guerra, management favorites who nevertheless aren’t on guaranteed contracts and might not be in the “best 26 to go north”?

These are serious considerations that the team has to make. There’s no rule that says the Opening Day roster is the one the Nats are stuck with. But if they let someone go because they want the Opening Day roster to look a certain way, they know they might regret it later on.

Photo by Marlene Koenig for TalkNats

How will the roster be set up?

In a normal season, MLB would require that teams carry no more than 13 pitchers. But coming off the shortened 2020 season and with health and safety protocols still in place due to COVID-19, that rule has been suspended again for 2021.

Most teams will probably carry 13 pitchers and 13 position players, an even split. Especially with the automatic runner in extra innings and the seven-inning doubleheaders, the chances that a team will need to use more than nine pitchers in a game (and very unlikely even that many) are vanishingly small, and with the benefit of alternate training sites and “taxi squads” for roadtrips, at least for the first part of the season, teams like the Nats should have ample ability to rotate in fresh arms as needed.

Still, this isn’t yet a settled question. Davey Martinez said earlier this week that he would prefer to have five players on the bench, but he also acknowledged that with some of his pitchers working their way back from injuries, he doesn’t want to be short on pitching, either.

The option decision on Fedde hurts the Nats here, as they had expected to be able to stash Fedde in the minors as their presumptive “sixth starter”, but instead, barring an injury to a starting pitcher, they’ll either have to trade Fedde and/or Austin Voth or carry them both in the bullpen. That means one fewer spot for a left-handed pitcher like Avilán and/or an experienced middle reliever like Kyle McGowin or Kyle Finnegan, and it leaves Guerra with no real niche on the roster. It also means less roster flexibility, as neither Fedde nor Voth can be sent to the minors at will.

Josh Harrison comes up big!; Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

What will the makeup of the bench be?

Benches vary widely around the league, but the most recognizable permutation has this core: backup catcher, backup (or platoon) first baseman, fourth outfielder, utility infielder. The fifth bench spot is typically used to shore up a weakness, such as by providing a go-to pinch-hitter, maybe someone who bats from the opposite side as the backup/platoon first baseman, if the fourth outfielder and utility infielder aren’t viable offensive options; or a fifth outfielder who is more offensively or defensively oriented, based on the fourth outfielder’s profile; or a backup shortstop, if the utility infielder can’t really play shortstop.

The Nats’ projected bench includes catcher Alex Avila, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, and then two or three question marks.

Josh Harrison could be either a bench player or in the regular starting lineup. If Harrison is a reserve, he could be described as either a fourth/fifth outfielder or a utility infielder, with the caveat that he’s not an option at shortstop. If Harrison is in the starting lineup, however, the Nats could effectively substitute Pérez, who can play every position except catcher reasonably well. But Pérez is not really a threat at the plate in the way that Harrison is, so that could leave the bench in need of a stronger pinch-hit option. Both Harrison and Pérez are right-handed hitters.

Stevenson and Parra are the leading candidates for the role of fourth outfielder, although one of them could find himself in the starting lineup in place of Soto if his leg issue ends up being more serious than expected. Neither Stevenson nor Parra are world-beaters at the plate, although Parra is somewhat of a power threat, and both have had success as pinch-hitters. Both bat from the left side.

A bench of Avila, Zimmerman, Pérez, and Stevenson has every position on the field covered for depth. But Zimmerman is the only reserve who brings a power bat. This bench might be balanced out with someone like Yadiel Hernández, a lefty slugger who can stand in left or right field; or even Parra, who lacks Stevenson’s defensive chops but carries a similar all-around profile. Having another outfielder on the bench would leave the infield depth rather thin. However, unlike Harrison, Pérez doesn’t figure to be a go-to pinch-hitter, so there’s likely not the same risk of the only utility infielder being used up for one plate appearance and leaving the team with no depth behind their second baseman, third baseman, and shortstop for the rest of the game.

On the other hand, a bench of Avila, Zimmerman, Harrison, and Parra is well-stocked with pinch-hit options, but the aforementioned infield depth issue could come into play. A light-hitting utilityman/backup shortstop like Pérez, Mercer, or Adrián Sanchez would fit better onto this bench than another pinch-hitter. They’re not going to hit much, but they’re not likely to be asked to.

If the Nats don’t mind running his service clock without him getting everyday reps, 20-year-old infielder Luis García might be an even better fit for either configuration. His left-handed bat and ability to hit for power provide some offensive value. He’s also capable of playing second base or shortstop. Like Harrison, however, García could potentially be an everyday player for the Nats, especially if Castro’s injury keeps him out for the start of the season.

Of course, this question is more or less a moot point, at least for Opening Day, if the Nats do decide they need to start the season with a nine-man bullpen.

There is mentoring going on between Trea Turner and Luis Garcia; Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

Who will play second base and third base?

This is the biggest outstanding question, as Carter Kieboom appears to be in real jeopardy of losing his place as the Nats’ everyday third baseman, at least to begin the season. Kieboom was one of the worst hitters in MLB during the shortened 2020 season, coming off a second-half slide at Triple-A Fresno in 2019. He hasn’t shown much this spring, striking out 15 times in 44 plate appearances through Thursday’s game and hitting a meager .150/.477. Davey Martinez’s tone in talking about Kieboom has become progressively more urgent, as he made it clear this week that Kieboom has not earned the starting third baseman job yet: “He’s gotta compete.”

But the situation is further snarled by Castro’s day-to-day injury status. The Nats had hoped to use the last few spring games to evaluate Castro at third base and get him some reps there. Instead, it’s unclear when Castro will return to action.

García hasn’t quite set the world on fire this spring, either. He’s hitting just .189/.546. But the Nats must be encouraged that he has dramatically reduced his strikeout rate, as he’s punched out just three times in 43 plate appearances through Thursday while walking six times. For a player who struck out a lot in his 2020 rookie season and rarely walked, those are eye-catching numbers, even if his overall body of work has left something to be desired.

If Castro remains on the shelf, Harrison will likely take his spot in the starting lineup. If Kieboom is judged to need more time in training camp, Harrison will likely slot into the lineup as well, whether that’s to replace Kieboom at third base or to take over second base as Castro moves to third. Since Harrison can’t play both positions at the same time, obviously, that leaves García as the probable second baseman if neither Castro nor Kieboom are in the Opening Day lineup.

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