There’s a lot to look forward to this spring for Nationals fans. The overwhelming majority of the team’s core from 2020 is returning, as well as a few players who opted out of play last year. Washington also added a few pieces that will play prominent roles in the upcoming season.
With the dawn of each new iteration comes a bevy of decisions regarding what roles each player will fill. Some years, those answers are more clear than others. This season, on the surface, there’s not much that isn’t apparent. But much like most years, there are numerous questions further down the roster that must be addressed, as well as the conundrum of how to restructure the batting order.
We’ve already introduced these topics earlier this week, but each merits some additional discussion, including an established pecking order in each race.
For a better sense of what’s truly up in the air, here’s a list of players who are absolutely safe, baring the unforeseen.
- Starting Pitcher (4): Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Jon Lester
- Relief Pitcher (6): Brad Hand, Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey, Will Harris, Kyle Finnegan, Wander Suero
- Catcher (2): Yan Gomes, Alex Avila
- Infield (6): Josh Bell, Ryan Zimmerman, Starlin Castro, Trea Turner, Carter Kieboom, Josh Harrison
- Outfield (4): Kyle Schwarber, Victor Robles, Juan Soto, Andrew Stevenson
In terms of roster composition, that’s 22 out of 26 spots that are firmly established – although not every player’s precise role is defined at this point. With that, here’s a glimpse into the battles that remain at each position and who the current leaders are.
There’s not much here that hasn’t been discussed in the past, but the order in which the candidates fall has shifted a bit. From the outside, it appears that Joe Ross has the best chance of winning the job entering the regular season. However, he didn’t play in 2020, and he hasn’t had an extended stretch of true success since 2016 – although his 3.02 ERA in nine starts in late 2019 was extremely encouraging. With the aforementioned period being the last he’s been seen on the field – aside from one start in the World Series, which should in itself carry some weight – it’s tough to penalize him for it, and he also has more experience than his competition.
Erick Fedde didn’t have a spectacular season in 2020, but he managed to pitch much like a fifth starter should – not going deep into games or striking batters out at a high rate, but pitching to a 4.29 ERA and generally keeping the Nationals in the game. In fact, 2019 was much the same for Fedde, so it’s fair to assume that’s roughly the type of pitcher he will be going forward. The upside he was assumed to have as a prospect hasn’t materialized, but he’s shown an acceptable floor for someone in this role. What’s working against him – aside from Ross’ qualifications – is the minor league option he still possesses, which other top contenders don’t have. As a result, there’s a good chance he begins the season in AAA Rochester. He’ll get the first crack to prove his worth, though.
The winner of last season’s fifth starter battle looks like the third option this time around. Austin Voth left much to be desired last year (6.34 ERA in 11 starts), and he’s also out of options entering this season. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t make the roster at all and is either designated for assignment or traded. However, if he cracks the Opening Day roster – which seems likely – odds are it will be as a reliever. In fact, recent developments suggest that transition is already taking place.
Rogelio Armenteros might make a push, but the odds are stacked against him. Other candidates – albeit slim ones – on the 40-man roster who have experience as starters in the upper-minor leagues include Ben Braymer and Steven Fuentes. We may hear from Seth Romero again at some point, and non-roster invitees (NRIs) to camp like Jefry Rodriguez, Tim Cate, Cade Cavalli (league-wide No. 99 prospect, per MLB.com), Cole Henry and Jackson Rutledge are other young starters to keep an eye on.
The initial word was that the Nationals are content with a closer-by-committee approach. Frankly, that always sounded like a bluff, and it now appears that there’s a frontrunner.
As discussed previously, Brad Hand is the elder statesman in the role, and the amount of money allocated to him this season ($10.5 million) makes him the logical preference. Daniel Hudson was Washington’s closer last year, but a subpar 6.10 ERA in that campaign means he’ll certainly have to win the job back. Star flamethrower Tanner Rainey, who is the top performer from 2020 that Washington has returning this year (2.66 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings, should also stay in late-inning situations. And Will Harris signed a sizable contract last offseason (three years for $24 million), and his 2020 performance (3.06 ERA in 20 appearances, including 2.76 after July) should keep him in a meaningful role.
By virtue of the workout grouping detailed in the above tweet regarding Voth, Harris appears to be the odd man out for a back-of-the-bullpen role, but Dave Martinez won’t hesitate to revise that pecking order if necessary during the season.
The positions more in flux come in the earlier innings, or lower-leverage situations. For now, it’s safe to assume Voth starts the season as a long, middle-inning reliever. That leaves potentially three bullpen spots up for grabs. Whether Hand sticks as the closer or not, it might behoove the Nationals to carry an additional left-hander. Luis Avilan and T.J. McFarland are intriguing veteran options from outside the 40-man roster, but short of that or a dazzling audition from a prospect from the lower-minor leagues, Braymer and Sam Clay will be the top competitors for that job.
The other two openings seem like Wander Suero and Kyle Finnegan‘s to lose. They’ll have to stave off Dakota Bacus, Ryne Harper and Kyle McGowin, but that seems likely. Javy Guerra or Jeremy Jeffress could also emerge from beyond the current roster, but the top two candidates seem quite deserving. Washington will have to determine how many relievers they want to carry on the roster, though. They have the option to carry nine if they wish, instead of the projected eight, and they may not carry either of the lefties if they don’t view it as absolutely essential.
Joan Adon is the lone additional pitcher not yet mentioned – aside from veteran starting pitchers – who currently resides on the 40-man roster. The rest of the NRI pitchers are Aaron Barrett, Jacob Condra-Bogan, Matt Cronin, Tyler Dyson, Tyler Eppler, Paolo Espino, Gabe Klobosits, and Todd Peterson.
To keep it brief, based on ability, Yan Gomes should log somewhere between 60–75% of the reps behind the plate. The bigger question might be whether Alex Avila – the presumptive No. 2 catcher – becomes a starting pitcher or two’s personal catcher. As mentioned before, he has caught Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester at various points in their careers. Kurt Suzuki was Scherzer’s primary catcher over the last two seasons, and no one has caught more of Scherzer’s major league starts than Avila, so that pairing seems likely to re-emerge in 2021. On the flip side, Corbin has thrown to Gomes in the overwhelming majority of his starts for Washington.
Filling in the gaps, logic seems to indicate that Strasburg and Ross – or whoever wins the fifth starting gig – will generally pitch to Gomes, while Lester sticks with Avila, since those are the catchers they each have some existing rapport with – and it also fits into the algorithm for each backstop’s likely workloads. These relationships may evolve during the course of the season, but they should be expected the first few times through the rotation during the season.
Other camp bodies include Tres Barrera (40-man roster), Welington Castillo, Blake Swihart, Raudy Read, Jakson Reetz and top catching prospect Israel Pineda.
Josh Bell will be the starter, and Ryan Zimmerman will be his backup. That doesn’t mean Zimmerman will never start, but it won’t be often. With that said, the switch-hitting Bell has often struggled against left-handed pitching. Conveniently, that has consistently been Zimmerman’s better side throughout his career. Bell will probably still play a fair amount against lefties, but expect the reps Zimmerman does get to come against southpaws.
Bell will probably start approximately 130 games, give or take depending upon how well he hits. It’s not out of the question that Zimmerman may serve as an occasional defensive replacement, though.
There are layers to this race, but the most important factor is how much the Nationals trust Starlin Castro, as he’s returning from an injury that sidelined him for most of last season. The rest of the infield-specific portion of the roster can be shaped around him.
Josh Harrison will be on the team as a utility player, and one of – possibly both – Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia will also make the Opening Day roster. All three of them are arguably best suited at second base, but Castro’s experience there will likely carry the most weight.
The most probable outcome is that Castro will be the everyday second baseman, with the rest of the group serving as capable replacements if needed.
Hernan Perez is an experienced veteran who is listed as a second baseman as an NRI.
It’s worth mentioning since every other position is getting some discussion, but there’s really no debate. Trea Turner will be there every day, and Garcia will be the emergency plan. Whether Garcia will be on the Opening Day roster is a separate question, but at a minimum he would immediately be recalled from the minor leagues to fill in for Turner if an injury took place.
Other players in camp who are labelled as shortstops are Yasel Antuna (40-man roster), Jordy Mercer, Adrian Sanchez and Jackson Cluff.
The focal point and frontrunner at this position will be Kieboom, but the names to keep an eye on don’t end with him. Harrison could hold down the fort if Kieboom ever proves overmatched, but you won’t see Washington go that route early in the season.
Here’s possibly the most intriguing element to this race, based on OPS each player posted in 2020.
- Kieboom: .786 vs LHP; .434 vs. RHP
- Garcia: .286 vs. LHP; .800 vs. RHP
A platoon wouldn’t be the optimal path for each player’s long-term development, but it would be the best way to manufacture a productive player while also getting each young asset significant major league reps. Keep an eye on how each of them perform against their more problematic sides this spring. For what it’s worth, Castro (second base) has also hit significantly better against lefties than righties in recent years.
Jake Noll is also listed at third base, as are NRIs Brandon Snyder (veteran) and Drew Mendoza (top position player prospect).
This group is about as straightforward as they come. Kyle Schwarber (left field), Victor Robles (center), and Juan Soto (right) will be the starters, and Andrew Stevenson is the heavy favorite to be the fourth outfielder – or at least make the roster in some capacity – who can play all three spots and has seen substantial success as a pinch-hitter.
The players competing for the final spot – which may or may not exist – are Yadiel Hernandez, Yasmany Tomas, and Gerardo Parra. Hernandez has the advantage of already being on the 40-man roster, Tomas is the best pure hitter, and Parra’s value goes without saying.
Of note, Parra isn’t 100% healthy and may not be by the start of the season. In other words, there’s a considerable chance that he’ll be added to the roster shortly after Opening Day.
The Final Four
For now, we can assume that Castro and Kieboom are everyday starters at second and third base, respectively. That leaves one spot in the starting rotation, two or three relievers, and one or no positions players off the bench to be decided.
Here are the last four players who will likely make the roster, in order of their odds to do so.
- Fifth Starter: Joe Ross
- Long Reliever: Austin Voth
- Final Bench Spot: Gerardo Parra
- Final Bullpen Spot: Jeremy Jeffress
Fedde shouldn’t be ruled out, but it’s always felt like Ross has had the upper hand over him. Washington will end up sending Fedde to AAA and turning to him whenever an injury occurs or a need otherwise arises.
The Nationals won’t want to lose Voth unless they’re forced to do it, and that likely won’t happen unless he struggles mightily this spring or early in the regular season.
Parra will have to prove his worth again, but as long as he looks capable, carrying him seems preferable over limiting Garcia’s playing time – even if it means sending Garcia back to the minor leagues.
The final relief decision is tough, and Jeffress’ career has been somewhat of a mixed bag, but he’s had enough success in recent years that not carrying him seems tough to justify. In this scenario, Hand (the projected closer) would be the only lefty in the bullpen. But none of the other southpaws are exactly forcing Martinez’s hand (no pun intended), and Finnegan, Hudson, Rainey and Suero each had more success against left-handed hitters than righties last season. Washington will likely be forced to make a decision on Braymer, Clay and company at some point, but it doesn’t have to be immediately.
The great thing is that these last four spots – and the entire roster, for that matter – don’t have to be determined right now. How players perform during Spring Training will play a major role in filling out the Opening Day roster.
Guess what? That audition starts tomorrow, as the Nationals take on the Cardinals at 1:05 p.m. in Jupiter, Florida. Washington will be facing star right-hander Jack Flaherty to start the game, although he won’t pitch more than two or three innings – as is always the case this early in the spring.
Keep up with the Nationals this spring by following @stephen_newman1 and @CapitalNewsman on Twitter.