Who’s Hot, Who’s Not, and What’s Up With the Bullpen for the Nationals?

Javy Guerra (left) finds himself among the relief pitchers competing for a role on the Nationals’ Opening Day roster. (Photo: Elsa/Getty Images)

Not much has changed since last weekend’s update. The same four pitchers are starting games, and the lineup has largely remained consistent. However, there have been some moderately surprising performances – both good and bad – for the Nationals lately.

With that in mind, I’ve taken this midweek off-day as an opportunity to discuss productivity trends and what they might mean leading up to Opening Day. Additionally, it looks like we’ve finally reached a point at which it’s appropriate to discuss the bullpen, now that everyone has thrown a few times and roles are becoming a bit more clear.

First, let’s talk about the offense!

Who’s Hot

In terms of the last four games, these are the hitters who have stood out above the rest.

  • Josh Bell: 4-for-9 (two singles, double, home run), two RBIs, no strikeouts
  • Victor Robles: 3-for-9 (single, double, home run), three runs
  • Ryan Zimmerman: 2-for-3 (single, home run)
  • Yadiel Hernandez: 2-for-2, one walk

In particular, the production from Bell (the projected cleanup hitter) and Robles (the potential leadoff hitter) is very encouraging. But it’s also nice to see Zimmerman (the clubhouse veteran) and Hernandez (competing for the last spot on the bench) have some success, as well.

Who’s Not

Frankly, just about everyone else could be lumped into this category. But here are the most notable struggles out of the hitters.

  • Yan Gomes and Alex Avila: 0-for-11, seven strikeouts
  • Carter Kieboom: 0-for-7, one walk, four strikeouts, throwing error
  • Kyle Schwarber: 1-for-9 (double), three strikeouts, grounded into a double play
  • Trea Turner: 0-for-6, three walks, grounded into a double play, 1-for-2 on stolen base attempts

The top two entries are the most glaring, but the bottom two are arguably more significant and impactful. Gomes/Avila and Kieboom will likely occupy the bottom two spots in the lineup – excluding pitcher – anyway, but Schwarber may wind up in the top half(ish) of the lineup, and Turner certainly will.

The Impact

The biggest story – by far – is Robles hitting at a high rate.

Of Robles’ 899 career plate appearances, more than two-thirds of them have come from the seventh, eighth or ninth position in the batting order. Nothing has been confirmed yet, but it’s near certain that he’ll hit higher than that this season. The lone question is how high he’ll go.

Robles has never struggled against left-handed pitchers, but the overwhelming majority of his success this spring has come against righties. If that continues, there’s at least a 50% chance that he’ll remain the leadoff hitter – as he’s been throughout Spring Training – once the regular season starts.

Starlin Castro didn’t stand out during this four-game stretch, but he’s batting nearly .350 this spring. He’s batted sixth more often than any other spot this month, but he’s certainly a candidate to move up if it’s beneficial for the team – possibly at Schwarber’s expense.

The Bullpen

We know what the starting rotation will look like. Max Scherzer will remain the ace, with Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin close behind. Jon Lester will eventually work himself into the mix once he’s fully healthy, and Joe Ross has taken a stranglehold on the fifth spot.

So what does that mean for the bullpen?

Brad Hand will be the closer unless someone takes the role away from him. Daniel Hudson – last year’s closer – has struggled so far, Will Harris seems to be transitioning away from a back-of-the-bullpen role, and Tanner Rainey is still sidelined due to injury.

Wander Suero has been dominant (five shutout innings with nine strikeouts and only three baserunners allowed), but most of the other top competitors have not. Erick Fedde and Austin Voth have both been spotty at best, Sam Clay has been okay, and Kyle Finnegan has already surrendered three home runs.

Three veterans from outside the 40-man roster have had strong springs so far: Luis Avilan and T.J. McFarland from the left side, and Javy Guerra from the right. Now that Jeremy Jeffress is no longer with the organization, one or two players from this trio have a solid chance of making the Opening Day roster.

Of the other 40-man options, Dakota Bacus, Ryne Harper and Kyle McGowin have looked solid this spring, but the Nationals have historically been fearful about using them – particularly Bacus and McGowin.

Here’s how the race currently looks.

  • Roster Locks: Hand, Rainey, Hudson, Harris, Suero
  • Bubble (in order of performance): Guerra, Avilan, McFarland, Harper, Bacus, McGowin, Clay, Fedde, Voth, Finnegan

There’s likely room for three of the bubble arms on the Opening Day roster.

Roster Activity

On Saturday, the following players were sent down to minor league camp, in some capacity:

  • Optioned to AAA Rochester: RHP Joan Adon, and infielders Yasel Antuna and Jake Noll
  • Reassigned to Minors: RHPs Bryan Bonnell, Cade Cavalli, Jacob Condra-Bogan, Tyler Dyson, Tyler Eppler, Cole Henry, Gabe Klobosits, Jefry Rodriguez and Jackson Rutledge; LHPs Tim Cate and Matt Cronin; catchers Israel Pineda, Raudy Read and Jakson Reetz; infielders Jackson Cluff and Drew Mendoza; and outfielder Cody Wilson

There are 36 players on the 40-man Major League roster who are still in camp, as well as non-roster invitee RHPs Aaron Barrett, Paolo Espino, Todd Peterson and Guerra; LHPs Avilan and McFarland; catchers Welington Castillo, Brandon Snyder and Blake Swihart; infielders Jordy Mercer, Hernan Perez and Adrian Sanchez; and outfielders Gerardo Parra, Carlos Tocci and Yasmany Tomas.

Other Notes

There hasn’t been much else to speak of, but the following developments are notable:

  • Yesterday, Strasburg threw on flat ground
    • Recovering from left calf injury suffered on Sunday
  • Rainey will throw a simulated game tomorrow
    • Should be ready by Opening Day, if all goes well
  • Lester to debut in tomorrow’s game
  • Parra made Spring Training debut on Monday
    • Started in left field and batted sixth, going 1-for-3 (single)

Upcoming Schedule

Starting tomorrow, the Nationals play four straight games, before getting another off-day.

  • Thursday: at Mets, 1:10 p.m.
  • Friday: at Astros, 6:05 p.m.
  • Saturday: vs. Marlins, 6:05 p.m.
  • Sunday: vs. Mets, 1:05 p.m.
  • Monday: off
  • Tuesday: at Cardinals, 1:05 p.m.
  • Wednesday: vs. Astros, 6:05 p.m.
  • Thursday, Mar 25: at Marlins, 6:05 p.m.
  • Friday, Mar 26; at Mets, 6:10 p.m.

Keep up with the latest Nationals news by following @stephen_newman1 and @CapitalNewsman on Twitter.

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