Who the heck is that guy? #Nats field guide to 2023 spring training

Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

At last, 2023 spring training is upon us! The birds are singing in West Palm Beach, and soon the air will be filled with the glorious sounds of bat hitting ball and ball hitting mitt. It’s time once again for the Washington Nationals to tune up for a 162-game season of baseball.

Now, we’ve been doing this annual feature for a while, and there are a lot of new faces to cover this year. The Nats have invited a whopping 27 non-roster invitees to camp, accounting for most of the players in this roundup. There are also a few players we didn’t see with the Nats in 2022 to talk about, including offseason acquisitions.

Before we get into the field guide, the usual disclaimer on non-roster invitees: Most won’t make the team, and the average fan may never hear about a good number of them ever again after they’re reassigned to minor league camp or released. However, the Nats traditionally carry at least one NRI, and often more than one, on their Opening Day roster. Others may find their way to the major league team throughout the course of the season, whether as emergency callups due to injury or by earning a look with a strong showing in the high minors. One thing is always, always true when I look back at these guides after spring training and again midway through or after the regular season: At least one of these players did a lot more than I ever expected.

With all of that out of the way, let’s get into it.

#1 – MacKenzie Gore, LHP

MacKenzie Gore

2022 stats (MLB): 70 IP, 4.50 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 23.3% K, 13.3% BB+HBP
2022 stats (minors): 17 IP, 3.71 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 22.5% K, 7% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 250⅓ IP, 2.91 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 31.5% K, 9.5% BB+HBP
40-man roster: Yes
Optionable: Yes

Technically, of course, Gore has been a Washington National since late July 2022. But since he didn’t appear in a game for the Nats last season, he opens our annual look at new faces and non-roster invitees to spring training this year. Despite his newness (and the fact that 2022 was his rookie campaign), Gore probably projects as the Nats’ No. 1 starter this season, so it is fitting that he has claimed No. 1 as his uniform number. Such a low number is unusual for a pitcher, but hey, you gotta admire the hustle.

Gore was once a top-10 prospect in all of baseball, checking in as MLB’s fifth-best prospect before the cursed 2020 season and sixth-best before the 2021 season. That 2021 campaign was a rough one for Gore, who struggled to a 5.85 ERA over six starts for Triple-A El Paso and failed to crack the major leagues despite high expectations. Accordingly, he slid down the prospect rankings ahead of the 2022 season. But in 2022, Gore quickly joined the San Diego rotation, looking for all the world like the prince that was promised. Gore had a 1.50 ERA by early June and owned two games with double-digit strikeouts (plus one more with nine). Then he gave up more than five runs in back-to-back starts and hit a slump that continued until, days before the trade deadline, the Padres referred him to the injured list with the dreaded “left elbow inflammation.”

Undeterred by Gore’s past inconsistency and present injury, the Nats asked for the left-hander as part of the mammoth return for Juan Soto and Josh Bell at the deadline. He joined the rotation at Triple-A Rochester in September, pitching well until he suffered a six-run blowup in his last start of the year (with five of those runs being scored in a nightmarish fourth inning). The Nats will hope that was just a minor blip on his road back to being a dominant arm that can front their rotation. At any rate, we will get our first look at Gore in a Nats uniform in spring training, and health permitting, he should open the year with the team and could even have a chance to start Opening Day.

#3 – Jeter Downs, INF

Jeter Downs

2022 stats (MLB): 41 PA, 1 HR, .154 AVG, .427 OPS, 51.2% K, 2.4% BB+HBP
2022 stats (minors): 335 PA, 16 HR, .197 AVG, .728 OPS, 29.6% K, 14.9% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 2008 PA, 73 HR, .240 AVG, .759 OPS, 23.5% K, 12.7% BB+HBP
40-man roster: Yes
Optionable: Yes

What plans do the Nats have for Jeter Downs? Once (and not too long ago) a top-50 prospect in all of baseball, Downs is still just 24. But the infielder never really worked out in the Red Sox organization — perhaps expecting a player named for a former Yankees team captain and Hall of Famer to thrive in Boston was simply a bridge too far? — and he was claimed off waivers by Washington in December 2022.

Downs made his major league debut last year, appearing in fourteen games. In that small sample, he struck out in more than half of his plate appearances and showed little power even on the rare occasions he did connect. He fared a little better at Triple-A Worcester, making up for a sub-Mendoza batting average and high strikeout rate by popping sixteen homers and taking free passes at an elite clip. Still, Downs hasn’t posted a batting average above .200 at any level this decade (excluding a stellar stint in the Arizona Fall League in 2021), and even though the game is no longer ruled by average, it’s still concerning to see a player who lit up the minor leagues in 2019 seems to have stalled out before his 25th birthday.

Clearly, the Nats think there may be some juice left in the squeeze when it comes to Downs. The Colombian represents a low-risk flier for them, a shortstop-capable player who is still young and was once very highly regarded. We’ll see if the change of scenery does Downs any good. He enters spring training as a candidate to make the team in a reserve role, although he faces pressure in that he can be optioned to the minor leagues at will and he hasn’t played any position professionally that incumbent utility infielder Ildemaro Vargas can’t handle as well. He has a chance to round out the bench, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Nats try deploying him in the outfield to see if he can provide some positional flexibility beyond his resume.

#6 – Michael Chavis, INF

Michael Chavis

2022 stats (MLB): 426 PA, 14 HR, .229 AVG, .654 OPS, 29.6% K, 4.9% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 1090 PA, 40 HR, .237 AVG, .690 OPS, 31.7% K, 6.2% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

A former first-round pick of the Red Sox, Chavis was a revelation for Boston in his rookie season, hitting .254/.766 over 95 games while playing around the infield diamond. That was back in 2019, which wasn’t long ago. But just like those of his new team, Chavis’ circumstances have changed very much since those days.

Boston fenced Chavis to the Pirates in 2021, and while Chavis was strong down the stretch for Pittsburgh, he fell off in 2022, hitting .229/.654 over 129 games while mostly playing first base. That’s not a great batting line, and it’s a really bad batting line for a first baseman, who is expected to be an offensive force. Unsurprisingly, even bottom-feeding Pittsburgh moved on from Chavis, who has now landed with Washington on a minor league deal.

At his best, Chavis can hit for moderate power while playing all around the diamond, although he’s poorly cast on the left side of the infield. At his worst, Chavis strikes out way too much, doesn’t get on base nearly enough, and doesn’t play anywhere well enough to justify putting him there in the first place. He walked just nineteen times in 2022 (and was hit by pitch twice) while whiffing 126 times, a truly ugly ratio. The Nats don’t need that, but they could use a play-everywhere righty hitter with some pop. If they can tame Chavis’ worst instincts, he could be a useful bench player, but that’s a big “if”. Chavis should get a chance in spring training, but he might be looking for a new job once the season starts if he doesn’t make the team. It’s unclear if he has the right to opt out of his minor league contract.

#8 – Carter Kieboom, 3B

Carter Kieboom

2022 stats: DNP
Career stats (MLB): 414 PA, 8 HR, .207 AVG, .619 OPS, 26.8% K, 13.5% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 1643 PA, 50 HR, .281 AVG, .838 OPS, 19.8% K, 13.6% BB+HBP
40-man roster: Yes
Optionable: Yes

You’re probably not going to be asking “who the heck is” Kieboom when you see him on the field in spring training, but it’s been so long that you just might. Kieboom tore his UCL early in spring training last year and missed the entire season as a result. He’s back after undergoing Tommy John surgery and is expected to have no restrictions. But the Nats have changed pretty dramatically around Kieboom since he made his major league debut four years ago, and his pathway back to a regular role in The Show is cluttered with obstacles.

The biggest obstacle Kieboom faces is simply that he hasn’t shown himself to be very good above A-ball. After finishing out the 2018 season at Double-A Harrisburg, the then-shortstop came into Triple-A Fresno like a wrecking ball in the 2019 season, even earning a brief cup of coffee in the majors where he memorably homered in his first MLB game. Then things got weird as Kieboom suffered a near-total power outage in the second half, which continued into the 2020 major league season. He bounced between the majors and Triple-A Rochester in 2021, and an expected competition between him and Maikel Franco to play third base in 2022 never materialized due to his spring elbow injury.

Despite Kieboom’s extended struggles, there’s some room for optimism. Kieboom hit all six of his major league home runs in 2021 during an August stretch in which he finally appeared to be putting everything together, before slumping again in September. Can the Nats coax him into locking back into that form? And while Kieboom’s hitting and slugging abilities have been inconsistent at best, he’s had a reliably above-average walk rate that gives him a major league floor. Triple-A is likely to be Kieboom’s destination out of spring training, but he has at least a nominal shot to win the starting third base job, and he could force the issue — or at least work his way back into the Nats’ plans — with a strong, healthy minor league season.

#9 – Jeimer Candelario, 3B

Jeimer Candelario

2022 stats (MLB): 467 PA, 13 HR, .217 AVG, .633 OPS, 23.3% K, 7.3% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 2460 PA, 66 HR, .240 AVG, .723 OPS, 23.9% K, 10.9% BB+HBP
40-man roster: Yes
Optionable: No

With Kieboom a big question mark at best coming off a lost 2022 season and three seasons of underwhelming results, the Nats signed former Tigers slugger Jeimer Candelario to play third base for them in 2023. Officially, Candelario will still have to win the job in spring training, but given his guaranteed contract status and lack of minor league options, he enters spring as a prohibitive favorite for the job.

Normally, you wouldn’t expect a free agent who has been a multi-year starter, who won’t turn 30 until next winter, to be available on a cheap, one-year deal. But Candelario fell off hard in 2022 after excellent 2020 and 2021 seasons, and it’s a mystery what 2023 will bring. Candelario hit .271/.795 over 149 games in 2021, leading the majors with 42 doubles while hitting a respectable sixteen homers. The over-the-fence power was still there in 2022, as he homered thirteen times in 124 games, but he found fewer gaps (his doubles dropped to nineteen), made less contact, and struggled to work walks. Despite Candelario’s struggles, the Nats pounced within days of him filing for free agency, signing him to a major league deal before the end of November.

The upside here is obvious. Candelario was excellent to start the decade, and there’s some evidence that he was victimized by simple bad luck in 2022. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) collapsed to .257 last year after being solidly above .300 in the previous two seasons. That doesn’t explain why he took so many fewer walks, but we’ve all seen how problems can snowball as players press. The Nats certainly hope they get the 2020-21 Candelario in 2023, but if they don’t, they have Kieboom as an internal option and a couple more young players who could press for playing time, as well as Vargas in a reserve role.

#13 – Lucius Fox, SS

Lucius Fox

2022 stats (MLB): 28 PA, 0 HR, .080 AVG, .195 OPS, 32.1% K, 3.6% BB+HBP
2022 stats (minors): 245 PA, 4 HR, .241 AVG, .673 OPS, 25.7% K, 10.6% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 2326 PA, 20 HR, .244 AVG, .671 OPS, 22.4% K, 12.4% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

With apologies to Lucius Fox, who made his 2022 debut last season with the Nationals, it’s not inaccurate to say his most memorable moment of the season was when he threw up on the infield and had to be taken out of the game. With the Nats mired in a deep (and deeply ugly) slump, Fox’s untimely illness was the picture of everything that was going wrong for a team that was supposed to be bad in 2022 but not horrible. Alas.

Fox played in eight games before finally taking his first walk of the season, then in the game he started after that, he collected his first two major league hits and RBI. Then he was sent back to the minors, where he stayed for the remainder of the season. His overall statline for 2022 in the minors looks nearly identical to his career stats, although there were moments it seemed like Fox was finally getting hot. Over 10 games in May, he hit a scorching .371/1.005 for Triple-A Rochester, only to miss the next two weeks with some sort of issue and come back ice-cold again before landing on the injured list. He again seemed to be heating up at the end of August and into early September, hitting .293/.819 with 11 RBIs over another 10-game sample, but then he cooled off once again. While those numbers are intriguing from a former top prospect and natural shortstop who is still only 25, those sample sizes are too small to put much stock into them, and Fox unsurprisingly lost his roster spot over the winter, going unclaimed and remaining with the Nats.

The Nats will give Fox one more look in spring training this year. He did well enough last spring to make the team, although he’s a long shot to repeat that in 2023, given he’s already been outrighted and the Nats are bringing a lot of infielders to camp. There’s still a chance here for the Nats to have a switch-hitting utilityman who hits enough to stick around, but that chance is fading. Fox needs to stay healthy in 2023 and have longer, more frequent hot streaks while playing at Triple-A to potentially push his way back into Washington’s plans.

#18 – Matt Adams, 1B/LF

Matt Adams

2022 stats (indie): 367 PA, 27 HR, .248 AVG, .881 OPS, 24.5% K, 10.9% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 2614 PA, 118 HR, .258 AVG, .769 OPS, 24.6% K, 8.2% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: No

Adams returns to the Nats, with whom he won the World Series in 2019, from exile in Kansas City, Kansas, where he played the 2022 season. Adams played well for the Monarchs of the American Association, looking very much like a major leaguer should in independent ball. He provided a big power bat in the middle of their lineup, which is something the Nats could use in 2023.

Of course, Adams is 34 now, and 2019 was the last year in which he had any useful results at the major league level. He struggled with Atlanta in 2020 and Colorado in 2021, not homering in 22 games with the latter team despite playing home games in, you know, Colorado. Since Adams hasn’t hit for a high average in years, walks have never been a huge part of his game, he’s not a particularly well-regarded fielder, and he’s quite slow, his value is tied up in his ability to punish right-handed pitchers and hit balls out of the yard. It isn’t hard to see why Adams didn’t land with a major league organization for 2022.

Adams is a major wild card in spring training for the Nats. It seems reasonable to think the Nats will give Adams a good chance to make the team, given their needs and their past relationship with the big man out of Slippery Rock. But it’s also anything but certain that Adams can achieve anything like his old form. If Adams plays well in spring training, it could give the Nats a lot to think about in deciding the composition of their bench.

#22 – Dominic Smith, 1B/LF

Dominic Smith

2022 stats (MLB): 152 PA, 0 HR, .194 AVG, .560 OPS, 24.3% K, 10.5% BB+HBP
2022 stats (minors): 248 PA, 10 HR, .284 AVG, .840 OPS, 15.7% K, 11.7% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 1373 PA, 46 HR, .246 AVG, .732 OPS, 24.3% K, 8.5% BB+HBP
40-man roster: Yes
Optionable: Yes

Once upon a time, Dominic Smith was the type of acquisition for which Nats fans would have been over the moon. He was one of the biggest breakout stars of 2019, unlucky to be blocked in the Mets organization by the emergence of superstar slugger Pete Alonso at first base, and the Mets made sure to find places for him to play in 2020 and 2021. But those two seasons couldn’t have gone much differently. Over 50 games in the shortened 2020 season, Smith put up a massive .316/.993 batting line. Then, over 145 games in 2021, Smith hit just .244/.667. He fell off even further in 2022, hitting no major league home runs and ultimately being demoted to Triple-A Syracuse. The Mets non-tendered him after the season.

Smith has acknowledged publicly that he doesn’t feel comfortable in the outfield, a lack of comfort borne out by his ugly fielding numbers in left field, and that he believes lack of regular playing time has hurt him. He should get a chance in Washington to put his money where his mouth is, as the Nats signed him to be their everyday first baseman. He’s still just 27, and he seems determined to show that his lackluster results in the past couple seasons aren’t who he is.

If Smith can’t hack it, the Nats have some options. Candelario has experience playing first base and could slide across the diamond, making way for Kieboom, Vargas, or someone else to play every day at third base. 2022 breakout star Joey Meneses, should he keep up his strong offensive production at the major league level, could relinquish the designated hitter role to play first base again. But Smith has upside as a slick-fielding first baseman with a power bat, if only he can shake off the past couple seasons and get to work in Washington.

#23 – Corey Dickerson, OF

Corey Dickerson

2022 stats (MLB): 297 PA, 6 HR, .267 AVG, .698 OPS, 16.2% K, 4.7% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 2786 PA, 134 HR, .281 AVG, .805 OPS, 20.4% K, 6.2% BB+HBP
40-man roster: Yes
Optionable: No

Dickerson, 33, figures to be the “seasoned veteran” on a very young roster this year. Coming off a lackluster season, Dickerson was available for a cheap, incentive-laden, one-year guarantee from the Nats, and he projects to be the team’s everyday left fielder in 2023.

On a deeper, better-rounded roster, Dickerson would look more like a pure platoon player. The lefty swinger does nearly all of his damage historically against right-handed pitching, struggling against same-side pitchers. A key to maximizing Dickerson’s productivity could be finding a way to keep him out of the lineup against southpaws in 2023. In 28 plate appearances last year with St. Louis in which he had to face off against a left-hander, he hit just .077/.258. The Cardinals only started Dickerson twice against left-handed pitchers. The Nats aren’t nearly as deep, but they could conceivably take the same approach by starting someone like Alex Call over Dickerson when the team is due to face a lefty in 2023.

Dickerson represents a low-risk but not particularly high-upside pickup for the Nats. He was a dominant hitter from 2017 to 2019, when he hit .293/.828, but he’s been a slightly below-average presence at the plate this decade, hitting .266/.717 from 2020 to 2022. Still, on a rebuilding team, that production would be “good enough” for Dickerson to hold down a regular role, even if Dickerson, 34 in May, isn’t expected to revisit the halcyon days of the late 2010s.

#26 – Erick Mejia, INF

Erick Mejia

2022 stats (minors): 521 PA, 15 HR, .261 AVG, .763 OPS, 19.8% K, 9.6% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 43 PA, 0 HR, .167 AVG, .466 OPS, 32.6% K, 9.3% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 3493 PA, 47 HR, .270 AVG, .726 OPS, 18% K, 9.1% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

Do the Nats think they’ve struck gold by signing 28-year-old utilityman Erick Mejia to a minor league deal? Well, there’s certainly no real risk to it, and while Mejia didn’t acquit himself very well over two brief cups of coffee with the Royals in 2019 and 2020, he put up some intriguing numbers last season at Triple-A Tacoma while playing just about everywhere except center field and catcher.

Obviously, there’s reason not to get too carried away here. Mejia’s overall minor league stats are so-so, and while he seemed to find his power stroke in a way he’d never done before last season, he was also blessed to play in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Despite playing in the PCL and hitting for some power, his overall numbers were more “good” than “great”. While it was certainly a solid season and it makes good sense for the Nats to take a flier on him, it’s also entirely possible that Mejia reverts back to a light-hitting jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none type on the East Coast this year.

Mejia is a dark horse candidate for that undefined last bench spot on the Nats, which could be an extra outfielder, an extra infielder, a big bat, a super-utility, or a pinch-runner type (as we saw in 2022, the bench is considerably less important in a game with the designated hitter rule in place and pinch-hitting accordingly going the way of the dodo). He’ll likelier be a nice piece for Matt LeCroy at Triple-A Rochester, capable of playing virtually anywhere while perhaps having a little upside at the plate.

#27 – Travis Blankenhorn, INF/OF

Travis Blankenhorn

2022 stats (MLB): 3 PA, 0 HR, .000 AVG, .000 OPS, 33.3% K, 0% BB+HBP
2022 stats (minors): 369 PA, 15 HR, .268 AVG, .807 OPS, 23.8% K, 10.3% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 31 PA, 1 HR, .172 AVG, .605 OPS, 29% K, 6.5% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 2537 PA, 81 HR, .258 AVG, .768 OPS, 24 K%, 9.9% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

Blankenhorn is a prime example of a player who has proven by now that he can hack it at the highest levels of the minors but just hasn’t been able to carve out a major league role. The middle infielder and outfielder turns 27 in August, and while he’s appeared briefly in parts of three major league seasons, he’s never been given an extended run. The Mets cut Blankenhorn from the roster early in the 2022 season, brought him back up in July for a single game, then outrighted him again the following day.

Can Blankenhorn finally break in with the Nats? He’ll have a chance just like anyone else to impress in spring training, although he hardly has a clear path. He doesn’t really have a “carry tool”, although he’s displayed some power with fifteen homers last year for Triple-A Syracuse. He can play multiple positions, giving him some positional flexibility, and he’s still relatively young. If you’re looking for a dark horse to make the team as a non-roster invitee, you could do worse than to look at Blankenhorn.

The Nats are the fifth organization with which Blankenhorn will log time, as he’s bounced around a bit since being drafted by Minnesota in the third round back in 2015. He will probably serve as flexible depth. Blankenhorn can play multiple infield positions and corner outfield but isn’t a natural shortstop, which makes him an awkward fit as a utility player but will give his manager some options for how to use him, whether that’s at Triple-A Rochester or perhaps in Washington.

#29 – Yadiel Hernández, OF

Yadiel Hernández

2022 stats (MLB): 327 PA, 9 HR, .269 AVG, .722 OPS, 22.6% K, 6.1% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 644 PA, 19 HR, .267 AVG, .727 OPS, 22.5% K, 6.8% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

Yadiel Hernández, who memorably made his major league debut in 2020 less than a month before his 33rd birthday, had a rough go of things in 2022. Seeming at last to have established himself as a more-or-less everyday player for the Nats, Hernández instead abruptly found himself on the outside looking in after a season-ending leg injury. He lost his roster spot after the season and now faces long odds to get it back this spring.

Hernández is now 35, and he’s coming off a serious injury. The Cuban has never been well-regarded as a fielder, and while he’s been a slightly above-average hitter over the past couple seasons, he hasn’t hit for as much power as you’d like from a defensively challenged left fielder, and he’s never walked very much, limiting his on-base percentage. He looks a lot like a “tweener”, a player with enough skills to threaten for a major league role but not enough to keep one.

On paper, Hernández is a viable candidate to make the team, and there’s a chance he does. But his path is complicated. He’s not going to be the fourth outfielder, a role that will almost certainly go to a player who can play center field, like Alex Call or Stone Garrett. His only real hope is that the Nats go with a bat-only type to round out the bench, and that he makes a better case for himself than anyone else. In short, Hernández will have to be the best hitter in spring training, or darn close, or he’s likely starting the season at Triple-A Rochester (barring injury).

#32 – Trevor Williams, RHP

Trevor Williams

2022 stats (MLB): 89⅔ IP, 3.21 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 22.6% K, 7.3% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 715⅓ IP, 4.27 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 19.2% K, 8.5% BB+HBP
40-man roster: Yes
Optionable: No

The free agent starting pitcher market this winter was decidedly top-heavy, and the Nats opted not to be players for the likes of Justin Verlander, Kodai Senga, and Carlos Rodón. Instead, they made a few depth moves, headlined by Williams, a soon-to-be-31-year-old former New York Met who bounced between the bullpen and the starting rotation in Queens.

In Washington, Williams has reportedly been guaranteed a starter’s role. He said after signing with the Nats that he wanted to find an opportunity to start regularly, as it’s what he feels most comfortable doing. In truth, the numbers show Williams has been about equally effective as either a starter or a reliever (.766 OPS against, 4.33 ERA, 1.33 WHIP as a starter; .761 OPS against, 3.84 ERA, 1.42 WHIP as a reliever). He’s not an exceptional pitcher, by any means, but he’s coming off a very solid season and he doesn’t put a lot of runners on base for free, which the Nats ought to appreciate.

Given the Nats’ lack of certainty in the rotation, Williams could end up being anywhere from the staff ace to their fifth starter this season, even potentially shifting into a swingman role if the Nats want to give a younger pitcher a shot in the rotation later on in the year. It will be interesting to see how Williams adjusts to being a full-time starter in Washington, and that journey will begin in spring training.

#33 – Leonel Valera, INF

Leonel Valera

2022 stats (minors): 527 PA, 18 HR, .265 AVG, .782 OPS, 33.4% K, 10.4% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 2026 PA, 41 HR, .254 AVG, .728 OPS, 29.4% K, 11% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

Valera is a rather intriguing under-the-radar pickup for the Nats this winter. Washington quickly scooped him up after he left the Dodgers organization as a minor league free agent, and he got an invitation to major league spring training despite not playing above Double-A yet. That invitation was prompted by a breakout performance at Double-A Tulsa last year, for which he hit .290/.841 over 88 games.

It’s especially noteworthy when a natural shortstop like Valera suddenly puts up quality offensive numbers, even in a hitter-friendly league and even over a limited sample size. Adding to the notability is Valera’s age, as while he’s been playing minor league baseball since he was 16, he’s still just 23. He is still very much a prospect, even if most evaluators aren’t ranking him among the Nats’ top organizational talents.

Of course, inexperience above A-ball works against Valera in the battle for a roster spot this spring. So does Valera’s high strikeout rate, as he whiffed in one-third of his plate appearances last year even while putting up a very competent overall batting line. The Nats will get their first chance to evaluate Valera up close in spring training, and he likely heads off to Double-A Harrisburg or Triple-A Rochester as one of their more interesting middle infield prospects in the high minors.

#34 – Derek Hill, OF

Derek Hill

2022 stats (MLB): 92 PA, 1 HR, .229 AVG, .659 OPS, 30.4% K, 5.4% BB+HBP
2022 stats (minors): 267 PA, 7 HR, .220 AVG, .680 OPS, 26.6% K, 9.7% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 254 PA, 4 HR, .240 AVG, .630 OPS, 29.9% K, 6.7% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 2450 PA, 34 HR, .246 AVG, .677 OPS, 25.7% K, 9.3% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: No

Hill is a depth outfielder who strikes out too much and doesn’t hit for enough power. He joins the Nats this season on a minor league deal after getting a brief cup of coffee last year with the Tigers, contributing to their 2022 campaign with one fluke-y homer and not much else.

Hill is still just 27 and is capable of playing center field. He’s been an up-and-down outfielder, bouncing between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo, over the past couple seasons after making his major league debut in the pandemic-affected 2020 season. In some respects, having experience riding the shuttle all season is a good thing for a minor league signee. In another, more important respect, it’s not a good thing for Hill because he’s out of options.

The Nats’ incumbent center fielder, Víctor Robles, has been one of the worst hitters in baseball the past two or three seasons running now, so there’s no real harm in bringing Hill to camp to see if it motivates Robles (after all, nothing else seems to have worked). Hill’s chances of making the team are probably slim to none, though. He actually had a solid 34 games at Triple-A Toledo in 2021, and a 34-game sample at Triple-A Tacoma after he went over to the Mariners midseason last year. But his overall minor league numbers are not impressive, and there’s not much room in the modern game for a contact-challenged hitter who doesn’t even make much noise when he does get wood on the ball. He could be a piece of the outfield puzzle for Matt LeCroy at Triple-A Rochester this season.

#36 – Stone Garrett, OF

Stone Garrett

2022 stats (MLB): 84 PA, 4 HR, .276 AVG, .848 OPS, 32.1% K, 4.8% BB+HBP
2022 stats (minors): 440 PA, 28 HR, .275 AVG, .900 OPS, 23.9% K, 8.2% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 2624 PA, 94 HR, .251 AVG, .738 OPS, 27.8% K, 6.4% BB+HBP
40-man roster: Yes
Optionable: Yes

The Nats announced the signing of Garrett, a rookie in the 2022 season who impressed over 27 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks, at the same time they officially unveiled Candelario’s signing. At the time, Garrett’s deal was overshadowed, and it’s still received less attention this winter than even some of the minor league deals the Nats have made. Since Garrett has minor league options and doesn’t project as a starting outfielder, it does probably make more sense to consider Garrett to be in a similar position to Downs, Kieboom, and other young players at the periphery of the 26-man roster. But the 27-year-old has some undeniable upside.

Even adjusting for the hitter-friendliness of the Pacific Coast League, Garrett was an offensive monster in 2022, crushing 28 homers and posting a very strong .900 OPS for Triple-A Reno. He hardly missed a beat in his cup of coffee with Arizona, doubling twice in his MLB debut and continuing to provide the team with some right-handed power down the stretch. But Arizona has an outfielder-heavy organization, and Garrett was squeezed off the roster at the end of the season despite his strong toplines. He figures to have more opportunity on the Nats.

Spring training will offer a valuable opportunity for the Nats brass and coaches to evaluate Garrett in person. There’s no question he can hit the ball a long, long way when he connects, but he’s defensively limited to the corner outfield positions. He also strikes out at an above-average clip and doesn’t walk much. That’s likely to cause some volatility, which could mean that even if Garrett makes the team out of spring training, he could be an up-and-down player as he inevitably hits some rough patches. The upside here, though, is a platoon partner for Dickerson who positions himself to play an everyday role in 2024 and beyond.

#38 – Wily Peralta, RHP

Wily Peralta

2022 stats (MLB): 38⅓ IP, 2.58 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 19% K, 14.9% BB+HBP
2022 stats (minors): 7⅓ IP, 2.45 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 31.3% K, 9.4% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 911⅓ IP, 4.29 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 16.7% K, 9.9% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: No

It’s hard to make sense of Peralta’s recent stats. Pitching mainly out of the Tigers’ bullpen last year (after starting eighteen games for them in 2021), he was excellent at limiting runs but had a garish walk rate and a far-too-high WHIP. And in 2021, while Peralta pitched to a very respectable 3.07 ERA, he also failed to average 5 IP/GS and had an awful 14.4% strikeout rate. How does he do it?

Peralta, 34 in May, is a do-it-all, rubber-armed veteran who actually looks like quite a get for the Nats on an obligation-free minors deal, even discounting his lousy peripherals. If he’s willing to report to the minor leagues after spring training (and this is where I put the obligatory “experienced veteran NRIs can usually opt out of their contracts if they don’t get promoted to the majors” disclaimer), he could provide valuable depth for the team as a spot starter or a multi-inning reliever.

Of course, Peralta is here to compete for a job in The Show. And he’s got his work cut out for him: The Nats return most of a pretty solid bullpen from 2022, and they have several other high-profile candidates for jobs in 2023, including No. 1 overall Rule 5 draftee Thaddeus Ward, who pretty well fills Peralta’s niche if he proves capable of handling major league hitters. In the rotation, they have less promising prospects, but even still, Peralta started just one game last year for Detroit, and there’s no guarantee the Nats even consider Peralta for a starter’s spot this spring. He does have a pathway to making the team, but he’ll have to force the issue and give the Nats a good reason to carry a pitcher who profiles as a cut-rate Erasmo Ramírez.

#39 – Jake Alu, INF/OF

Jake Alu

2022 stats (minors): 567 PA, 20 HR, .299 AVG, .871 OPS, 18.2% K, 10.1% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 1089 PA, 31 HR, .286 AVG, .804 OPS, 19.3% K, 8.4% BB+HBP
40-man roster: Yes
Optionable: Yes

Quietly, Jake Alu has been one of the most impressive prospects in the Nats organization this decade. While the 24th-round draftee hasn’t historically gotten much love from prospect evaluators, the Nats liked what they saw enough to add him to the 40-man roster after the 2022 season.

Alu certainly earned it. Defensive metrics cast him as perhaps the best third baseman in the minor leagues, and one of the most valuable fielders overall. He limited strikeouts and made a lot of high-quality contact from the left side. And he ended the year on an absolute tear, hitting .323/.925 over 59 games with Triple-A Rochester (his first taste of the highest minor league level) and putting an exclamation point on his season with a staggering .409/1.204 batting line in the month of September 2022.

Alu can play multiple infield positions as well as corner outfield. Still, like Blankenhorn, he’s limited as a utility player as he’s not a natural shortstop; he hasn’t played the position professionally. He could receive an extended look this spring as a candidate to fill out the last bench spot, as Vargas already fulfills the Nats’ need for a backup shortstop, although he should have some competition from right-handed hitters, including players with major league experience. Still, if Alu ends up starting the year at Triple-A Rochester and continues hitting the way he did last season, it’s a safe bet we will see him in Washington before too long.

#41 – Anthony Castro, RHRP

Anthony Castro

2022 stats (MLB): 13⅓ IP, 7.43 ERA, 2.18 WHIP, 22.6% K, 18.9% BB+HBP
2022 stats (minors): 38 IP, 3.55 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 27.8% K, 16.6% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 39 IP, 6.00 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 25.1% K, 12.3% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 604⅔ IP, 3.45 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 22.6% K, 12.5% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: No

The Nats added to their minor league relief depth by signing Castro, a 27-year-old righty, this winter. Castro has appeared in the past three major league seasons, with a different team each year, so he’ll hope to establish himself a little better with the Nats.

For Toronto in 2021, Castro was decent, pitching to a mediocre 4.74 ERA but a somewhat more promising 1.26 WHIP. The Blue Jays didn’t keep him around, and his stopover last year in Cleveland was less successful. He struggled to a 7.43 ERA over twelve appearances with the Guardians and was cut loose. His minor league numbers were likewise unexceptional, as he simply allowed too much traffic on the basepaths.

Castro will probably serve as depth at Triple-A Rochester in case the Nats have a lot of injuries to the bullpen. He can run his fastball up into the mid- to upper 90s, and he’ll be at least a credible option, but the bullpen picture is probably too crowded and Castro too unremarkable to warrant a serious look in spring training. Still, one can never rule out surprises, and Castro does at least have some major league experience.

#44 – Donovan Casey, OF

Donovan Casey

2022 stats (minors): 317 PA, 7 HR, .216 AVG, .623 OPS, 30.6% K, 8.2% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 1855 PA, 60 HR, .268 AVG, .770 OPS, 29% K, 8.5% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

Casey started very well as a member of the Nats organization after being acquired at the trade deadline in 2021, flattening Double-A pitching and quickly earning a promotion to Triple-A. As a Rochester Red Wing, though, he’s been underwhelming, pitching to a .204/.596 batting line over 122 games in 2021 and 2022. He showed a little progress last year but was still not particularly good, and he was outrighted from the roster during the season.

The Nats are lacking in “sure things” amid a rebuild this season. That’s particularly true in the outfield, where their “best” outfielders in Corey Dickerson and Lane Thomas probably profile as part-time players on a first-division team. So, as the team casts a wide net for outfield help (but without spending, you know, money), they will give Casey another look in major league spring training camp.

Casey has yet to master the curve at Triple-A, so he’s probably starting the year again in Rochester. When he’s locked in, though, he can hit for some power. He’s limited by a relatively high strikeout rate and a decidedly low walk rate, and he’s had contact issues against high-level pitching. The Nats will be on the lookout for signs of progress this spring.

#47 – José A. Ferrer, LHRP

José A. Ferrer

2022 stats (minors): 65⅓ IP, 2.48 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 30.5% K, 4.7% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 152⅔ IP, 2.83 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 31.5% K, 9.5% BB+HBP
40-man roster: Yes
Optionable: Yes

Ferrer hasn’t reliably figured as one of Washington’s top prospects, but he’s carved a swath of destruction through the minor leagues and was one of several players promoted to the 40-man roster after the 2022 season. That came despite limited experience (just seven games) above A-ball, but it was earned by his sky-high strikeout numbers and overall effectiveness against hitters at all levels.

Unsurprisingly, Double-A Harrisburg was Ferrer’s least effective level in 2022. He pitched to a 4.70 ERA over his seven games there, although he also struck out fully one-third of the 33 Double-A batters he faced. And at Low-A Fredericksburg and High-A Wilmington, the southpaw reliever was nothing short of dominant, shredding through batters with a .588 OPS against and 2.18 ERA.

Ferrer turns 23 next month, so while he’s not the youngest player in camp, he’s hardly aged out of prospect status. He’s unlikely to make the Opening Day roster, but if he can limit runs in the high minors, he could be a depth option as soon as this season. His likely destination out of camp is Harrisburg, although he could advance to Triple-A Rochester before too long after jumping two levels in 2022.

#49 – Alex Colomé, RHRP

Alex Colomé

2022 stats (MLB): 47 IP, 5.74 ERA, 1.68 WHIP, 14.9% K, 10.2% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 536 IP, 3.34 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 21% K, 9% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: No

It seems like the Nats have been linked with Colomé for years now, and he’s finally on the team now. Colomé was available on a minor league deal coming off his worst season in the big leagues, which he spent with — say it with me now — the Colorado Rockies. (Why do pitchers keep signing with the Rockies? It’s a mystery.) He’ll now have to compete for a job in the Opening Day bullpen of the worst team in MLB, despite owning 159 career saves and an All-Star appearance. Life comes at you fast, huh?

Colomé has always relied on weak contact to get outs, as aside from his 2016 All-Star campaign in Tampa Bay, he’s just not been a big strikeout arm. At his most effective, he’s also limited baserunners, but he’s never had elite command, either.

The attractive thing about Colomé is that he’s “been there”, as a former All-Star closer who once led MLB in saves (47 in 2017). He’s had success. The Nats would surely like to have that veteran leadership in a young, less experienced bullpen, although he’s unlikely to seriously challenge Kyle Finnegan or Hunter Harvey for the closer’s role this year. But if he’s a mess in spring training, like he has been the past couple seasons in Minnesota and Colorado, the Nats have committed nothing and will likely move on.

#50 – Anthony Banda, LHP

Anthony Banda

2022 stats (MLB): 26⅔ IP, 6.75 ERA, 2.10 WHIP, 22.2% K, 11.1% BB+HBP
2022 stats (minors): 11⅓ IP, 4.76 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 22.4% K, 16.3% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 111⅔ IP, 5.64 ERA, 1.61 WHIP, 20.1% K, 10.3% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: No

Banda gives the Nats a non-roster option for a left-hander in the bullpen, an obvious need this team has entering spring training. Now, is Banda a good option? That’s more debatable. He owns a career ERA north of 5.5, and he’s never missed a lot of bats while walking more than he ought. He spent time in the bigs with three teams (the Pirates, the Yankees, and the Blue Jays) last season and struggled with all three.

The 29-year-old Banda works in the low to mid-90s with his fastball and has secondary pitches in the form of a curveball and a changeup. Unsurprisingly, with a three-pitch mix, he’s had some opportunities in his career to start, but he’s never been a regular starter at the major league level. He’s unlikely to be considered by the Nats in that capacity this spring, and in fact, in recent seasons, he’s generally been used as a single-inning reliever or lefty specialist.

Banda doesn’t stand at the forefront of bullpen potentials this spring. Even still, with parts of six major league seasons under his belt and a live left arm, he could get extended consideration. His track record doesn’t suggest the Nats are likely to get much out of him, and on paper, they have better options, but clearly the Nats see enough here to interest them on a minor league deal. He could factor into their plans as left-handed depth this summer.

#52 – Chad Kuhl, RHP

Chad Kuhl

2022 stats (MLB): 137 IP, 5.72 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 17.8% K, 10.2% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 576⅔ IP, 4.74 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 20.1% K, 11.2% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: No

The owner of the objectively most alpha name in baseball, Chad Kuhl was once a well-regarded young starter for the Pirates. That was several years ago, though. Since coming back from Tommy John surgery (which wiped out his 2019 season), Kuhl has seriously struggled to limit traffic on the basepaths and keep the ball in the yard, two flavors that do not go better together when you’re a professional pitcher. He’s coming off his worst season to date as a Colorado Rockie in 2022, pitching to a 5.72 ERA for the purple people.

To Kuhl’s credit, he took the ball 27 times last season and even twirled a complete-game shutout (against the Dodgers, no less). If the Nats are looking for a No. 5 starter who can eat innings, they could do worse. The Delaware native’s walk rates were way too high toward the end of his time in Pittsburgh, but they improved considerably in Colorado, where his major problem was instead avoiding hard contact. It’s possible that improves with a more normalized hitting environment, although Kuhl was actually somewhat worse pitching on the road last year than he was at Coors Field.

The Nats signed the 30-year-old Kuhl late into the offseason, perhaps sensing a bargain with what’s left of the free agent starter market stalled. He should contend for a rotation spot in camp, likely competing against top pitching prospect Cade Cavalli (assuming the Nats aren’t prepared to throw in the towel on ace-turned-arsonist Patrick Corbin and move him to the bullpen). It’s possible the Nats seek to stash him at Triple-A Rochester if he doesn’t make the team, but it’s likely a player with Kuhl’s resume has an opt-out clause in his contract.

#55 – Yasel Antuna, OF

Yasel Antuna

2022 stats (minors): 523 PA, 11 HR, .215 AVG, .691 OPS, 23.1% K, 17.8% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 1548 PA, 30 HR, .231 AVG, .687 OPS, 21.3% K, 13% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

Why is Yasel Antuna in major league spring training camp? Dunno. Presumably, it’s a courtesy after Antuna lost his 40-man roster spot (which he was bizarrely given after the 2020 non-season) over the winter. Antuna hit OK at High-A Wilmington last year, then didn’t hit at all at Double-A Harrisburg, then didn’t do much in the Arizona Fall League. And now, here he is in major league spring training camp.

Antuna was moved to the outfield after the 2021 season, after demonstrating zero aptitude for the infield. He wasn’t amazing in the outfield either, committing eight errors. One thing Antuna was good at in 2022? Taking walks, which he did at an elite rate even while hitting for a low average and not slugging at a high rate.

Publicly, the Nats have said all the right things about Antuna, even after the 23-year-old former top prospect cleared waivers and was outrighted to the minors. They think he’ll still be a good player. He can develop at his own pace. He’s still young. Maybe Antuna’s patient approach at the plate is enough to reassure the Nats that there’s still something here. Then again, maybe it’s just happy talk about a player who has crashed down the prospect boards harder than a rhinoceros falling down the stairs. We should get to see some of Antuna in spring training. While he’s not a candidate to make the team, he could get his long-shot rebound campaign started on a strong foot if things go well for him in West Palm Beach.

#56 – Matt Cronin, LHRP

Matt Cronin

2022 stats (minors): 52 IP, 2.42 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 26.9% K, 11.1% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 104 IP, 2.25 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 35.5% K, 12.6% BB+HBP
40-man roster: Yes
Optionable: Yes

Could Cronin, a former fourth-round draft pick, be a factor for the Nats in 2023? He certainly pitched in 2022 like a man who isn’t far from making a difference in The Show. With a high-spin fastball and a devastating 12-6 curveball, Cronin has the goods to be a setup man or even a closer at the next level. He might be the most promising homegrown relief prospect the Nats have had in their organization since Koda Glover.

Cronin advanced to Triple-A Rochester last year after not giving up an earned run in fourteen games for Double-A Harrisburg. He looked more mortal at Triple-A, pitching to a 3.53 ERA over 34 games (which is still pretty good). Matt LeCroy didn’t use Cronin as his closer, as he finished sixteen of the games in which he appeared but didn’t pick up a single save. Those high-leverage opportunities could come with time, or Cronin could settle in as a middle reliever, perhaps a left-handed specialist. His control will likely dictate how far and how fast Cronin rises, as he puts more than one-tenth of the batters he faces on base for free.

The Nats could consider Cronin for a role in the bullpen on Opening Day. The team lacks a surefire lefty for the relief corps, and Cronin could appeal to them as a southpaw with two MLB-ready offerings and back-end upside. Then again, Cronin wasn’t quite as studly at Triple-A as he was at Double-A in 2022, and the Nats may want to see him truly dominate the top level of the minors before giving him a major league job.

#57 – Andrés Machado, RHRP

Andrés Machado

2022 stats (MLB): 59⅓ IP, 3.34 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 17.6% K, 10.7% BB+HBP
2022 stats (minors): 17 IP, 5.82 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 25% K, 8.3% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 98⅔ IP, 4.10 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 17.5% K, 11.6% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: No

The Nats somewhat surprisingly outrighted Machado off the roster when they needed a spot over the winter. Machado has been a regular in Dave Martinez’s bullpen for the past two seasons now, and he was one of Martinez’s more reliable options, albeit mostly pitching in low-leverage situations, last year. However, Machado is now out of minor league options, so the Nats won’t be able to continue using him as an up-and-down arm in 2023. That loss of flexibility may have tipped the scales against Machado, who passed through waivers and is back in camp to fight for his old roster spot.

Machado, 30 in April, isn’t a particularly flashy pitcher. At his best, he can pitch into the mid-90s, and he has a couple of passable secondary offerings in the form of a slider and a changeup. His peripherals largely haven’t supported his competent 3.41 ERA as a National, as his FIP has been more than a run higher at 4.55, owing mostly to his low strikeout rate. Machado thrives on pitching to weak contact and inducing groundballs, which actually might play well with the Nats’ improved infield defense, but it always leaves a pitcher more reliant on the players behind him than evaluators typically prefer.

It’s nice that the Nats have brought Machado back to camp, but it’s unlikely that they’ll reverse their decision to take him off the roster — especially given that he’s going to be pitching for Team Venezuela in the 2023 World Baseball Classic for a portion of spring training. Machado has been a solid pitcher for the Nats, certainly more than they could have expected when they initially signed him as a minor league free agent two years ago, but the bullpen picture is a little too crowded now, and Machado simply doesn’t stand out for much more than his familiarity with the team. He could be called upon from the minor leagues at some point, though, if the need arises.

#59 – Evan Lee, LHP

Evan Lee

2022 stats (MLB): 8⅔ IP, 4.15 ERA, 1.85 WHIP, 16.3% K, 18.6% BB+HBP
2022 stats (minors): 39 IP, 3.46 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 28.3% K, 15.1% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 151⅔ IP, 3.74 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 29.9% K, 13.4% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

The Nats needed a lot of starting pitchers in 2022, including of the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency type. Lee, 25, fell into both categories, being summoned from Double-A Harrisburg for a spot start and sticking around to make three appearances out of the bullpen after that. While Lee didn’t altogether embarrass himself in the majors, he did pitch pretty much the way you’d expect a Double-A pitcher to, issuing more free passes than strikeouts and only going unscored upon in one of his four outings at the major league level.

Lee’s season ended with a left flexor strain, which is serious business that can augur a torn UCL. Thankfully, Lee did not need Tommy John surgery, and while the injury wiped out what was left of his season, he’s back in spring training camp this year. Lee lost his 40-man roster spot over the winter, so he’s now a non-roster invitee after clearing waivers.

Prospect evaluators seem to consider Lee a fringe top-30 prospect in the organization, with some ranking him just inside the top 30 and others omitting him. He’s likely miscast as a starter, so it will be worth monitoring in 2023 whether the Nats move him to the bullpen, and if so, whether he has more success there. He’s a long shot to make the team out of spring training, having already been booted from the roster and lacking Triple-A experience, but the team can always use more lefties. We could see him again at some point.

#62 – Alberto Baldonado, LHRP

Alberto Baldonado

2022 stats (minors): 63⅓ IP, 3.84 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 31.5% K, 10.5% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 10⅔ IP, 8.44 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 24.5% K, 14.3% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 530⅓ IP, 3.67 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 25.8% K, 11.9% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

The Nats brought up Baldonado to the majors for the first time after the 2021 trade deadline, and although he got off to a strong start, striking out Bryce Harper in his first major league appearance, the wheels came off after that and he lost his place in the bullpen. Baldonado has remained with the organization since then as a fixture in the Triple-A Rochester bullpen, where he was quite adequate last year, with generally solid peripherals.

Baldonado has been a loyal soldier for the Nats, and coming off a strong (if not flashy) Triple-A campaign, it makes sense that he’s a non-roster invitee again this year. The Nats could use more lefties in the bullpen, and Baldonado has shown he can bring the heat from the left side. While he fell down in his first attempt to stick in MLB, he’s been making a case for another chance since then, and that chance could come in 2023.

Working against Baldonado? The numbers. The 30-year-old is jostling for attention among a lot of pitchers in camp, including lefties like Matt Cronin who are on the 40-man roster already. The Nats ought to give him a chance to impress, but he’ll have to do so early on or he could find himself back on the minor league side too quickly.

#63 – Sean Doolittle, LHRP

Sean Doolittle

2022 stats (MLB): 5⅓ IP, 0.19 WHIP, 35.3% K, 0% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 450⅔ IP, 1.01 WHIP, 29%, 6.2% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: No

Yes, we all know who Sean Doolittle is. He’s one of the most popular Nats of all time and was the closer in Washington from mid-2017 through mid-2019. He earned a World Series ring, pitching in a setup role after the midseason acquisition of Daniel Hudson. He earned a job out of spring training last year, too, although an injury ended his season before it was a month old.

Doolittle is now 36, and he’s much closer to the end of his career than the start. He’s always been injury-prone, a fact that is largely responsible for him being a pitcher in the first place (he was originally drafted by the Oakland Athletics in 2007 as a first baseman). And so, while Doolittle got off to an outstanding start with the Nats in 2022, and he’s certainly a huge fan favorite, it’s unclear just what Washington can expect from him in 2023, if anything.

It’s exceptionally likely that Doolittle will be given every opportunity to make the team out of spring training. Only a terrible spring showing or an early injury will likely keep him off the roster, although he hasn’t been guaranteed a spot entering spring training. The Nats are also likely to prioritize having a left-handed pitcher among their eight relievers, and Doolittle should be an early favorite for that role. But Doolittle will need to show that he is healthy and effective to stay in pole position, and he’ll need to keep showing it all year to hold down a job. You can’t run a baseball team on nostalgia.

#65 – Francisco Pérez, LHRP

Francisco Pérez

2022 stats (MLB): 8⅔ IP, 7.27 ERA, 2.54 WHIP, 14.6% K, 18.8% BB+HBP
2022 stats (minors): 46⅔ IP, 4.82 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 29.9% K, 16.2% BB+HBP
Career stats (MLB): 15⅓ IP, 5.87 ERA, 2.02 WHIP, 15.8% K, 15.8% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 455⅔ IP, 3.24 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 23.1% K, 10.8% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

The Nats claimed funky left-hander Francisco Pérez off waivers from Cleveland in the 2021-22 offseason, and then in 2022, they endured the Francisco Pérez Experience. An inconsistent asset in the Triple-A Rochester bullpen, Pérez fell flat on his face whenever he was recalled to the Nats, posting horrible numbers (including nine walks and one hit batter to just seven strikeouts) over ten major league games. He ultimately lost his roster spot, tested minor league free agency, and ended up signing back with the Nats on a guarantee he’d get another chance in spring training.

Watching Pérez, it’s easy to see what scouts saw in him. His pitches have a lot of movement, and he employs an unconventional delivery that can mess with hitters’ timing. Unfortunately, it’s also a high-effort delivery with a lot of moving parts; he struggles (even to the untrained eye) to repeat his mechanics; and he constantly seems to be fighting himself as his pitches veer every which way except for the strikezone.

Pérez memorably flamed out of any consideration for the Opening Day roster last spring with a dreadful outing against the Cardinals, in which he gave up six runs (four earned) while getting just a single out. He’ll certainly hope to avoid similar ignominy this spring. But while the Nats could really use a bullpen lefty or two, and it makes sense to give Pérez one more shot, it seems like a stretch to imagine him making the team after his woeful performance last year between Washington and Rochester. He should end up back in Rochester as minor league depth, although it’s always possible — and the Nats are surely hoping — the intriguing 25-year-old can figure things out.

#68 – Thaddeus Ward, RHP

Thaddeus Ward

2022 stats (minors): 51⅓ IP, 2.28 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 31% K, 10.3% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 216⅔ IP, 2.53 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 28.6% K, 12.3% BB+HBP
40-man roster: Yes
Optionable: No

The Nats were undoubtedly ecstatic to be able to pick Ward out of the Red Sox organization with the No. 1 overall selection in the Rule 5 draft in December 2022. Ward, one of Boston’s top pitching prospects, was left unprotected, and he was immediately considered the likely top pick. The flip side is that the Nats now must keep Ward on the roster all year, and they can’t send him down to the minor leagues at will, despite his lack of experience above the Double-A level.

Ward pitched well in 2022, making seven starts for Double-A Portland and posting a 2.43 ERA. But he didn’t make his season debut until July, as he needed Tommy John surgery in mid-2021 and wasn’t ready for the start of the 2022 season. And while Mike Rizzo said the Nats think Ward can recover more of his velocity, he wasn’t reaching the 95-96 mph levels at which he was tossing before he went under the knife. Command is a bit of a worry as well, as while Ward punched out an excellent 31% of batters faced, he let about one in ten on base via walk or hit-by-pitch.

There’s no such thing as a slam dunk in the Rule 5 draft. If there were such a player, they would have been protected. The Red Sox gambled that Ward wouldn’t end up being worth a 40-man roster spot. The Nats have gambled that he’s ready to contribute, or at least ready enough to be worth investing a 26-man roster spot this year. Ward should be considered a prohibitive favorite for a bullpen spot out of spring training, and he could potentially get a look in a starter role as well, but he’ll need to perform — at a passable level, at least — in order to hold down that roster position all year. The Nats hope to see Ward grow into a rotation spot by 2024, but he’ll need to get through this year first.

#70 – Jeremy De La Rosa, OF

Jeremy De La Rosa

2022 stats (minors): 448 PA, 11 HR, .280 AVG, .794 OPS, 25.7% K, 10.9% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 905 PA, 18 HR, .246 AVG, .705 OPS, 29.4% K, 10.6% BB+HBP
40-man roster: Yes
Optionable: Yes

De La Rosa is one of the Nats’ consensus top-10 prospects, but he hasn’t played above High-A in his minor league career, and he hasn’t played well above Low-A. He would have been eligible for the Rule 5 draft in December 2022. Evidently, the Nats decided it wasn’t worth the risk to expose him, even though he’s clearly far from MLB-ready. He was added to the 40-man roster in November and will be in major league spring training this year.

It’s not worth spending too much time here talking about De La Rosa. He tore it up for Low-A Fredericksburg in 2022, hitting .315/.899 and whacking ten homers in 315 plate appearances. Then he went up to High-A Wilmington and finished the year there with an anemic .195/.544 line. The Athletic’s Keith Law reported this month that De La Rosa fractured his hamate bone at some point during the season, which would certainly account for the sudden power drop. Even that aside, slow starts are nothing new for De La Rosa, who after all hit .209/.595 at Low-A in 2021 before finding the handle in the following season. The Nats should be optimistic he can solve High-A pitching and beyond in 2023.

Whatever De La Rosa’s injury prognosis and minor league outlook, he’s not a serious candidate for a roster spot out of spring training, and it’s unrealistic to expect him to be a factor for the major league team in 2023 at all. If healthy, he could see a bit of action early on in spring training but will likely be moved over the minor league side of camp before too long.

#72 – Jackson Tetreault, RHP

Jackson Tetreault

2022 stats (MLB): 21 IP, 5.14 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 9.4% K, 10.4% BB+HBP
2022 stats (minors): 58 IP, 4.19 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 20.9% K, 10.4% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 439⅓ IP, 3.85 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 20.8% K, 9.4% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

Like Evan Lee, Jackson Tetreault wasn’t supposed to appear in the majors in 2022, and he definitely wasn’t supposed to make four starts in the Nats’ rotation. He was called up from Triple-A Rochester, where he had been putting up competent if unspectacular numbers, to plug a hole due to injuries. After a rocky debut, he settled in with two very strong starts before hitting the skids in a July appearance against the Marlins. It was clear something was wrong: Tetreault’s velocity was noticeably down and his command was way off in that start, and he landed on the injured list with a season-ending stress fracture in his shoulder immediately afterward.

Despite a bummer ending to his season, Tetreault exceeded expectations in 2022. Never ranked (and still not ranked) among the Nats’ top organizational prospects, Tetreault nonetheless reached the majors and pitched competently until his injury. While we have no word yet on any restrictions he may have, it seems like a positive sign for his health that he’s in camp this year whereas other prospects coming off injuries, including pitcher Cole Henry and outfielder Robert Hassell III, are not.

There is another side of the coin: Tetreault lost his 40-man roster spot over the offseason, remaining in the organization after going unclaimed. Nearly everyone the Nats outrighted to the minors this winter is in major league camp this spring as a non-roster invitee. That makes it tough to evaluate at the outset of camp whether a player like Tetreault remains in the Nats’ plans, or he’s simply being brought back to play with the big leaguers for a week or two as a courtesy. At any rate, Tetreault’s likely destination is Rochester to begin the season, where he’ll once again try to put himself in position to be called up if the Nats need a starter.

#74 – Jake Irvin, RHP

Jake Irvin

2022 stats (minors): 103⅓ IP, 3.83 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 25.2% K, 8.7% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 252⅓ IP, 3.64 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 22.4% K, 8.2% BB+HBP
40-man roster: Yes
Optionable: Yes

Irvin was a surprise addition to the 40-man roster after the 2022 season. He could have been a dark horse candidate for the Rule 5 draft, or at least so the Nats must have thought, protecting him despite a lackluster 4.79 ERA over fifteen starts for Double-A Harrisburg in 2022. That was his first taste of the high minors, as injuries have slowed the soon-to-be-26-year-old right-hander’s progression.

Despite Irvin’s age and iffy toplines, there are reasons to like his profile. He doesn’t give up a lot of hits or walks, and he maintains a respectable strikeout rate. He’s a big guy, at 6-foot-6, with a fastball that he can rev up into the high 90s. If he can cut down on the home runs allowed in the high minors, he could push his way into consideration for a rotation role as soon as midseason. If he can’t make it as a major league starter, he could work out as a reliever, especially if he adds a few ticks to his fastball pitching in relief.

Irvin likely won’t get an extended look this spring, although he’ll be in major league camp. His upside as a starter is still too valuable to seriously consider him for the major league bullpen, even if he has a comparable level of high minors experience to Ward, and there are too many starters with major league experience and not enough games on the Grapefruit League schedule for the Nats to give him consideration for a spot even in a very unsettled rotation.

#75 – Hobie Harris, RHRP

Hobie Harris

2022 stats (minors): 53 IP, 2.04 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 27.1% K, 13.5% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 322⅔ IP, 3.12 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 27.1% K, 12.5% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

Harris, 30 in June, could be the next big thing for the Nats. He has yet to pitch in the major leagues, but he was utterly dominant over 53 games for Triple-A Nashville last season, coming off a fairly strong 2021 for Triple-A Buffalo. Is this the year Harris finally gets the call to The Show? It’s certainly possible.

While Harris has never ran an alarming WHIP, he has historically struggled to limit walks. In 2022, he gave up 28 walks in 53 innings, but only 29 hits. What makes him so difficult to hit? Well, for one thing, he can run his fastball up to nearly triple digits. For another, he throws an effective splitter. His velo has increased sharply this decade after topping out in the mid-90s before the pandemic, so while the Blue Jays and Brewers never found a space for him in their bullpens in 2021 and 2022 respectively, perhaps the Nats will.

Working against Harris is, obviously, how crowded the bullpen picture is for the Nats. The team isn’t lacking for high-octane righties, and Harris is less established than most. He’s in the danger zone for crossing into his 30s without a major league appearance to his name, something he’ll hope to avert as a member of the Nats organization. He’ll get a look in spring training and could serve as Triple-A depth if he doesn’t make the team.

#78 – Tommy Romero, RHP

Tommy Romero

2022 stats (MLB): 8⅓ IP, 10.80 ERA, 2.40 WHIP, 15.9% K, 20.5% BB+HBP
2022 stats (minors): 86 IP, 3.24 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 20.2% K, 9.8% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 493 IP, 2.65 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 25.6% K, 9.3% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

2022 was the best of times and the worst of times for Tommy Romero, who made his major league debut at age 24 with the Tampa Bay Rays only to find himself on waivers weeks later. The Nats picked him up and sent him to Triple-A Rochester, recalling him for a spot start in October that 1) went really poorly and 2) was somehow the third-best start by a Nats pitcher in the six games Washington played that month.

Romero lost his roster spot over the winter, being designated for assignment and then non-tendered just for good measure in November. Evidently finding no better offers in free agency, the right-hander hooked back on with the Nats as a non-roster invitee to spring training. He could be considered this spring as a rotation candidate, or he could be one of the umpteen starters-by-trade with a shot to make the bullpen as a multi-inning reliever.

The likeliest outcome for Romero, of course, is that he spends another year as a Triple-A starter, awaiting a chance to redeem himself in another major league spot start at some point. Romero certainly doesn’t have exceptional stuff, and his command was completely absent over his four major league appearances to date. But he’s still young (26 in July), and plenty of young pitchers have been smacked around at first before eventually figuring things out and having decent-to-good major league careers. His overall minor league numbers are quite good, and he pitched effectively between the Rays and Nats minor league systems last season, so perhaps it’s too early to write Romero off. The Nats may be glad they were able to keep him in the fold after cutting him from the roster in the fall.

#79 – Jackson Rutledge, RHP

Jackson Rutledge

2022 stats (minors): 97⅓ IP, 4.90 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 23.4% K, 8.7% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 171 IP, 5.11 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 24.1% K, 10.5% BB+HBP
40-man roster: Yes
Optionable: Yes

Let’s face it: Rutledge wouldn’t be on the 40-man roster, and he wouldn’t be in major league camp, if he weren’t the Nats’ first-round draft pick in 2019. The 6-foot-8 right-hander had a great first professional season, and he’s been plagued by injuries, inconsistency, and underperformance ever since. While he looked brilliant at times in the 2022 season, even repeating the level at Low-A Fredericksburg, he struggled overall to an ERA just under 5, and despite his big arm and high velocity, he didn’t strike out nearly as many batters as one would expect. He didn’t make it back to High-A Wilmington after reaching that level and struggling in 2021.

The Nats have a checkered history at best with draft picks. It’s been more than a decade since the Nats drafted someone who turned into a quality major league contributor with this same organization, and even many of the first- and second-round picks in that time haven’t even reached the high minors and thrived. Rutledge was highly touted at the time he was selected, being viewed as a potential top-10 draft pick who slipped to seventeenth overall. The Nats definitely don’t want to give up on Rutledge, even if it’s become increasingly likely that the Missourian, 24 in April, has a ceiling in relief rather than as the No. 1 starter it was hoped.

The best-case scenario for Rutledge in 2023 is that he looks like the pitcher who had a 2.13 ERA and .589 OPS against from July 30 through the end of August in 2022, and who pitched eight shutout innings in the playoffs, and not like the pitcher who had a 6.63 ERA and .801 OPS against before that. The best-case scenario has him making a brief stop back in High-A before progressing through Double-A Harrisburg. A finish at the major league level likely isn’t in the cards even under the best circumstances in 2023. But if Rutledge can’t get it together this season, it will be more than fair to wonder if he ever will.

#80 – Gerardo Carrillo, RHP

Gerardo Carrillo

2022 stats (minors): 23⅓ IP, 6.94 ERA, 1.67 WHIP, 24.3% K, 16.5% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 314 IP, 4.18 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 21.5% K, 14.5% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

One of the players in the package that the Dodgers sent over to the Nats in mid-2021 for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, Carrillo was a fairly well-regarded pitching prospect in the Los Angeles organization who fell apart almost immediately upon moving to Double-A Harrisburg. He pitched to a 5.59 ERA over the remainder of the season and got injured early on in his 2022 campaign, although he returned in the second half. He lost his roster spot and is now back in major league camp as a non-roster invitee.

Carrillo, 24, is an undersized righty (5-foot-11) whom the Nats finally seem to have conceded isn’t a starting pitcher, as he made just one start (while rehabbing) last year. Even so, he hasn’t been particularly effective in relief, either. Moderately effective during a midseason stint at High-A Wilmington, with a 3.60 ERA at that level, Carrillo was outclassed at Double-A, working scoreless appearances in only four of his ten games at the higher level last year. His Double-A ERA was a hideous 11.32.

Unsurprisingly, Carrillo has fallen well down the prospect rankings after being ranked as high as the Nats’ organizational top-10 in 2021. We could see him in some low-leverage outings during the Grapefruit League, but he’s unlikely to be a serious candidate for a roster spot coming off an injury-plagued and ineffectual season. Inviting him to spring training is a nice gesture by the Nats, at least, although the message it sends — the team hasn’t given up on Carrillo — would seem more convincing if the team hadn’t invited virtually everyone it cut from the roster over the past few months.

#81 – Drew Millas, C

Drew Millas

2022 stats (minors): 342 PA, 6 HR, .225 AVG, .690 OPS, 25.1% K, 14.9% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 726 PA, 9 HR, .246 AVG, .706 OPS, 19.1% K, 15% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

Writing this feature last year, I described Millas as having “surely … one of the most intriguing profiles of anyone in camp this spring”. This year, that is…less true.

Millas took more walks than he had strikeouts in 2021, as a minor league catcher who split his season between Oakland and Washington’s farm systems (he was acquired midyear in the Yan Gomes/Josh Harrison deal). But in 2022, Millas looked a lot more ordinary, upping his power somewhat — though he still didn’t come away with much to show for it, with a modest six home runs — but paying for it with a drastically increased strikeout rate. He was promoted straight from Low-A Fredericksburg to Double-A Harrisburg in May, but he was busted back down to Fredericksburg in July after hitting .200/.560. He was somewhat better in September, after pitching the interceding two months between Fredericksburg and High-A Wilmington, although the .243/.624 line he posted over twelve games to finish the season out at Double-A didn’t set the world on fire.

Although his prospect star has waned, Millas was invited to the Arizona Fall League last year (where he acquitted himself quite well), and he still figures to be the Nats’ top catching prospect not named Israel Pineda in 2023. It’s not surprising to see him back in spring training camp, especially given the perennial need for catchers to handle the sheer number of pitchers in West Palm Beach. He’ll probably report back to Harrisburg to begin the season, but he could get the call to Washington at some point if the injury bug bites hard enough.

#82 – Brady Lindsly, C

Brady Lindsly

2022 stats (minors): 242 PA, 6 HR, .190 AVG, .564 OPS, 33.1% K, 8.3% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 392 PA, 8 HR, .206 AVG, .600 OPS, 30.1% K, 10.2% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

The rap on Lindsly when he was drafted in the fourth round of the abbreviated 2020 draft is the Nats selected Cade Cavalli’s catcher and good friend to give him a greater degree of comfort signing with and pitching in the Nats organization. As was inevitable, Cavalli and Lindsly’s paths have diverged; Cavalli spent most of 2022 at Triple-A Rochester, while Lindsly was held back at Double-A Harrisburg. But they’re back in camp together this spring, as the Nats need a healthy number of catchers to work with their pitchers early in spring training.

Lindsly briefly looked in 2021 like he could end up beating expectations, as he hit a competent-for-a-catcher .233/.659 between the High-A and Double-A levels that season. But his hitting numbers backed up in 2022, and he didn’t progress from Double-A. His likely outcome is the one that was likeliest all along: He’s organizational depth, a catcher who could yet carve out a long career in the minor leagues but probably will get little to no opportunity in the majors on account of his light bat.

Lindsly is 25 next month, and he’ll probably start the season in Double-A or possibly Triple-A, depending on where the Nats need him, with a chance he moves back down to High-A. Expect his opportunities for game action in spring training to be limited, with him moving over to the minors side fairly early in camp.

#83 – Zach Brzykcy, RHRP

Zach Brzykcy

2022 stats (minors): 61⅓ IP, 1.76 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 38.5% K, 14.2% BB+HBP
Career stats (minors): 123⅔ IP, 3.49 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 35.3% K, 12.7% BB+HBP
40-man roster: No
Optionable: Yes

While he’s not on the 40-man roster yet, it’s likely just a matter of time before Brzykcy is pitching in Washington, D.C. The Virginia Tech product has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the minor leagues since signing as a non-drafted free agent after the pandemic-shortened 2020 draft, which had just five rounds. With a fastball that can flirt with triple digits from the right side and a wipeout slider, Brzykcy has simply overpowered hitters at every level, rising from High-A Wilmington to Triple-A Rochester last season. So dominant was his stuff that he was assigned directly to High-A in 2021, skipping the lower levels of the minors altogether; while his 5.20 ERA with Wilmington that year wasn’t very good, he struck out nearly one-third of batters faced and kept his walk rate under 10%.

In 2022, Brzykcy only gave up twelve earned runs all season over 51 appearances, but his walk rate was sharply higher than 2021. It didn’t really matter because Brzykcy was so unhittable all season. He punched out nearly two in five hitters he faced throughout the year across three levels, barely skipping a beat when he was promoted to Double-A Harrisburg and finishing with two scoreless appearances at Triple-A. In short, his season was domination.

You have to acknowledge Brzykcy has a chance at making the Opening Day roster — after all, who wants to bet against an NDFA who advanced from High-A to Triple-A last year with an ERA well under 2? — but realistically, he will probably be back in Rochester to begin the season. He might not be there for long, though, if he keeps pitching the way he has so far in his professional career. Some prospect evaluators have even tipped Brzykcy as the Nats’ closer of the future, and at least one ranked him in the organizational top ten over the winter. The 23-year-old is a player to watch.

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