When you are a rebuilding team with a strong farm system like the Washington Nationals, most of the future is being seen in the Minor League side of camp. But general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Dave Martinez must build a 26-man roster and start making cuts, and that is today’s story. Health, contract status, and competition will usually shape most of the roster. There is also some excitement on the big league side of camp with its young core and good starts to Grapefruit League play by several Nats.
If we go by health, you can cross off Stephen Strasburg, Carter Kieboom, Derek Hill, Jackson Tetreault, and most likely Sean Doolittle off the list to make the Opening Day roster for March 30. Yes, we are just two-dozen days away from the start of the regular season.
In roster construction, you must look at players who have minor league options as well as your players with guaranteed contracts, and players who are not optionable.
When you have a Rule-5 player on your roster like Thaddeus Ward, the contract status gets even more complicated. Basically Ward has to stay on the Nats’ MLB roster for the full season as he can not be directly placed into the minors unless the Nats work out a trade with the Red Sox or he clears waivers with the Red Sox not wanting him back. There are injury exceptions and you can click on the Rule-5 link for everything you need to know.
Let’s look at the players who do not have options: Corey Dickerson, Jeimer Candelario, and Ildemaro Vargas for the position players. Yes, Dominic Smith has one option remaining. Of the starting pitchers, Strasburg, Trevor Williams and Patrick Corbin do not have options. In the bullpen, there is a lot of option flexibility except for Carl Edwards Jr. and Erasmo Ramirez. Basically all of those players without options have to make the Opening Day roster or be placed on the injured list.
In Nats history, the players with guaranteed contracts almost always make the team. That won’t make for happy people who want to see Corbin DFA’d, but that’s the history with this team. You can expect all of those aforementioned players on the 40-man roster without options to make the team if healthy. Additionally, players like Victor Robles will make the team even though he has one minor league option remaining. Statistically, Robles has started off with a good spring.
Looking at the roster, you can really expect 22 of the 26 spots to be almost set with good health, and whether you like it or not, that’s how it works. For all intents and purposes there is just three bullpen spots open and one bench spot. Of course things can change going forward, and most of that has to do with health. If Doolittle was healthy, there would only be two bullpen spots to fight for.
THE COMPETITION FOR ROSTER SPOTS
Here is what a Nats lineup and roster could look like today:
1. Lane Thomas RF
2. CJ Abrams SS
3. Jeimer Candelario 3B
4. Dominic Smith 1B
5. Joey Meneses DH
6. Corey Dickerson LF
7. Keibert Ruiz C
8. Luis Garcia 2B
9. Victor Robles CF
Starting pitchers (5): Cade Cavalli, Patrick Corbin, MacKenzie Gore, Josiah Gray, Trevor Williams
Relief pitchers (8): Carl Edwards Jr., Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, Erasmo Ramirez, Thaddeus Ward, TBD, TBD and this will be a battle of Cory Abbott, Paolo Espino, Andres Machado, Mason Thompson and a few other names in the running with Jordan Weems, Hobie Harris, Jake Irwin, Matt Cronin, Jose Ferrer, and Alex Colome
Catchers (2): Keibert Ruiz, Riley Adams
Infielders (7): CJ Abrams, Jeimer Candelario, Luis García, Dominic Smith, Joey Meneses, Ildemaro Vargas, and choose one from Matt Adams, Jake Alu, Jeter Downs, or Michael Chavis
Outfielders (4): Corey Dickerson, Victor Robles, Lane Thomas, Alex Call
While the Opening Day lineup looks locked-in against a right-handed starter, we would fill out the rest of the bullpen with more hybrid relievers to give depth in the early weeks of the season when starters aren’t pushed hard as they build up arm stamina. For the bench, we are liking Jake Alu for the final spot although as expected, veteran Matt Adams is hitting well with the new shift rules. Nobody else has really challenged much, and many thought Stone Garrett had the inside track to make the roster. He’s hitting .176 with little power even though he looked jacked in some team photos showing some impressive biceps. While Garrett is a finalist for “Best Shape of his Career” status, he has work to do to earn a roster spot based on merit, and not muscle. This is not a bodybuilding competition.
There are a few NRIs named here who have a shot at making the roster. While the Nats 40-man roster is full, they still have the option when needed to place Tanner Rainey on the 60-day IL as he recovers from UCL surgery, and Strasburg almost certainly would be added to the 60-day IL. That could open up two coveted spots on the roster. Rizzo could also use open 40-man spots for a waiver claim.
With Candelario going to the World Baseball Classic, it should open up more playing time, and especially for Alu who can play at third base. Of note, Candelario has also been getting additional side work at first base, a position he has played before. The same with Joey Meneses being at the WBC will open more opportunities for both Adams, Matt as well as Riley Adams who could get some extra reps when Keibert Ruiz is catching.
One of the most important areas of need is establishing depth in starting pitching. Wily Peralta and Chad Kuhl were both brought into camp on minor league deals as starting pitching depth. Cory Abbott and Paolo Espino both started games last year for the Nats. Jake Irvin was added to the 40-man roster to protect him from Rule-5 over the winter. Irvin has been working in relief and really has been showing just two pitches, fastball and curveball — not exactly a starter’s repertoire for a RHP. But we like him for the bullpen. Another starter to watch for later in the season is Jackson Rutledge if the 2019 first rounder can progress into at least Double-A this year. He’s also on the 40-man roster. We sort of expected someone to challenge Cade Cavalli for the fifth and final starter’s spot, and nobody has impressed enough to take Cavalli’s spot.
Our own Forensicane has been in Nats’ camp and gave some really good commentary yesterday.
“Nothing like sitting behind home plate to watch baseball. It’s a different game. A few observations…” — forensicane http://disq.us/p/2tdxh9d
Again, we reasonably have a little over three weeks in camp remaining for someone to step up and grab the silver chalice. Things can always change in camp competition. Hope springs eternal.