The Race to Opening Day
The MLB season opens with Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals facing Gerrit Cole and the New York Yankees on Thursday, July 23. Aside from preparing for the likes Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and company, here’s what it seems like D.C. fans should expect to see.
As always, the equation always starts with basic roster construction. Here’s a quick reminder of the initial 60-man player pool.
Since the pool was released, Washington has seen Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Ross and Welington Castillo opt out for the season. Along with potentially COVID-related absences, relievers Roenis Elias and Wander Suero have been placed on the injured list, prospects Cade Cavalli (their first-round selection from this year) and Yasel Antuna were added to the player pool, and lefty specialist Fernando Abad was released.
Some info I planned to publish related to Cavalli as part of a larger article but was unable to due to changing circumstances (for the Nationals and the league as a whole, as well as in my own personal life):
In a typical season, this type of player wouldn’t be given such an opportunity, but let’s be realistic: are there really 60 players more deserving of a preseason look than someone the team just spent a first-round pick on?
Even with that said, it was moderately surprising that the organization picked Cavalli. The reasoning has become more clear recently. As has been widely reported, No. 7 prospect (and 2018 first-round pick) Mason Denaburg underwent surgery in the offseason and still isn’t ready to pitch.
For the sake of context, here are some other recent early draft picks (in addition to Cavalli) who are still considered “prospects” that the Nationals opted to place on the 60-man player pool:
- Carter Kieboom: 2016 first round
- Seth Romero: 2017 first round
- Wil Crowe: 2017 second round
- Tim Cate: 2018 second round
- Jake Irvin: 2018 fourth round
- Jackson Rutledge: 2019 first round
- Matt Cronin: 2019 fourth round
Likely Opening Day Roster
To open up the season, teams will be able to carry 30 players. By the looks of things, Suero and Victor Robles (one of the COVID-related quarantiners) have reported to camp and should be ready to go – even if they aren’t completely up to speed.
With that, here’s roughly what the 30-man roster should look like (minus Elias):
Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Austin Voth/Erick Fedde
There’s not much up for grabs here. The only question mark – particularly without Ross – is the No. 5 spot. Austin Voth seemed like the next-best option entering the spring and backed up his strong 2019 prior to the suspension of play.
Erick Fedde had a stellar intrasquad outing on Friday after Voth’s first slight hiccup, but big No. 50 rebounded in relief of Scherzer on Saturday night (four innings, two hits, no walks, and five strikeouts).
Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, Will Harris, Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, whoever doesn’t start between Voth/Fedde, Ryne Harper, Javy Guerra*, Sam Freeman*
The backend trio is solidified – likely in that order (closer, eighth/seventh innings), and Tanner Rainey is a filthy No. 4 when he throws strikes. If available, Suero has similarly nasty pure “stuff”, one of the starter candidates should become the long man – which the Nationals rarely have at their disposal – and the season Ryne Harper had in Minnesota in 2019 as a middle-inning man is one that few Nationals rivaled.
Things get trickier after that. Elias seems like the next in line, but he probably won’t be ready to go. That probably clinches a role for run it back camp invitee Javy Guerra. It would also make it tough to justify not carrying Sam Freeman, who would become the bullpen’s only lefty not named Doolittle. Both would have to be added to the club’s 40-man big league roster, but there are enough openings to make that happen without dropping a player. They could also opt for James Bourque to save a 40-man spot, or to carry Kevin Quackenbush if Suero isn’t ready.
Kurt Suzuki, Yan Gomes, Raudy Read
Raudy Read didn’t seem likely to make the roster until recently. Now that Zimmerman is out and Dave Martinez seems open to occasionally playing Kurt Suzuki as a DH, it would be helpful to have an extra catcher. Not only is Read the next best option there, but he has also gotten a lot of reps at first base since the restart. He’s still not a lock to make the team, but his odds have increased tremendously.
Eric Thames, Howie Kendrick, Starlin Castro, Trea Turner, Carter Kieboom, Asdrubal Cabrera, Wilmer Difo
These seven seem set in stone. Eric Thames probably gets most of his reps as a DH, with Howie Kendrick at 1B, Starlin Castro at 2B, Trea Turner at SS, and Kieboom at 3B. However, there are a few additional factors to keep in mind.
Martinez also seems to be in favor of Kieboom as his “starting” third baseman, but the writing on the wall seems to indicate that Asdrubal Cabrera will likely draw the start in the season opener. Gerrit Cole is a tough season-opening matchup for a rookie, and the fact that he’s right-handed also hurts Kieboom to a degree. Nonetheless, Kieboom’s bat has looked strong since played resumed, which has certainly helped his case for getting more play time this season.
Expect Cabrera to play a lot at numerous positions, even if he isn’t the “starter” at any of them. Don’t rule out a reunion with Matt Adams or Brian Dozier – both of whom were recently cut by the Mets and Padres, respectively – either.
If the Nationals don’t carry Raudy Read (or want an extra hitter instead of nine relief arms), Brandon Snyder seems like the next-most likely bench bat to earn a promotion. He could at least be a reserve corner infielder, but he also has experience at 2B and in the outfield. Jake Noll would also provide similar capabilities, albeit with less big league experience.
Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Adam Eaton, Michael A. Taylor, Andrew Stevenson, Emilio Bonifacio*
There shouldn’t be anything wildly unexpected here, either. The top five should simply be returning to their roles from last season, with Emilio Bonifacio in essence filling in for Gerardo Parra. Bonifacio is intriguing, though, because he also provides extreme versatility. With how well he’s played at the plate and all over the field, there’s a thought that he could make Wilmer Difo expendable. However, like Guerra and Freeman, he isn’t currently on the 40-man roster.
The Extra Men
Everyone else from the 60-man player pool will report to Fredericksburg, Washington’s new High-A Carolina League affiliate. That group would include six of the team’s top 10 prospects, according to MLB.com – Luis Garcia, Jackson Rutledge, Wil Crowe, Tim Cate, Seth Romero, and Matt Cronin.
If anything happens to anyone on the active roster, they would be the first players in line to be promoted.
Opening Day Lineup
Keeping in mind that Cabrera is likely to start over Kieboom in the opener, this is what you’ll likely see against Cole and the Yankees on Thursday:
- SS Trea Turner
- RF Adam Eaton
- 2B Starlin Castro
- LF Juan Soto
- 1B Howie Kendrick
- DH Eric Thames
- 3B Asdrubal Cabrera
- C Kurt Suzuki
- CF Victor Robles
Aside from Suzuki – Yan Gomes is starting in his place – this is the exact lineup the Nationals are using in Monday’s exhibition against the Orioles.
For now, it seems like the third baseman will generally bat seventh, with the catcher hitting eighth ahead of Robles. The portion of the lineup that might be flipped around as the season progresses is towards the top.
It’s possible – and almost likely – that Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick eventually get bumped up in the lineup, but Adam Eaton and Starlin Castro seem dependable enough as table-setters to stay there unless/until they fail.
One thing is for certain; the season will be starting this week, and that means baseball fans – and sports fans, at large – can finally sit back and enjoy some live action.
Baseball is usually a marathon. It will be a 60-game sprint this year. Whether you’re in favor of that, against it, or indifferent, it will certainly be interesting to see how it plays out and how it compares to a typical 162-game slate.