Two More Spring Games (and Lots of Roster Cuts) to Go for the Nationals

Amidst the home stretch of a tough Spring Training, Carter Kieboom finds himself at risk of being sent back down to the minor leagues. (Photo: Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

This was a strange week from the Nationals, but very little of it will affect the Opening Day roster. The Stephen Strasburg injury scare was certainly unsettling, but apparently it doesn’t matter – don’t believe me; listen to the medical expert.

Over the last four games, Washington has pretty clearly been positioning its roster – and especially its starting rotation – for what it’ll be asked to do once the regular season starts. Here’s what I’ve noticed.

Starting Pitching

Rather than bury the lede, here’s what will stand out. Max Scherzer didn’t pitch in a game. Instead, he’s throw in a B game today, keeping him on standard rest ahead of Opening Day (Thursday, April 1).

As for the rest of the staff…

  • Jon Lester (Tuesday): 3.2 innings, three hits, two walks, one run, no strikeouts
  • Joe Ross (Tuesday): 4.2 innings, four hits, no walks, two runs, two strikeouts
  • Stephen Strasburg (Wednesday): four innings, three hits, five walks, four runs, one strikeout
  • Erick Fedde (Thursday): 1.2 innings, two hits, one walk, no runs, three strikeouts
  • Austin Voth (Friday): 1.2 innings, three hits, no walks, two runs, one strikeout

Of note, Luis Avilan and Kyle McGowin started Thursday and Friday’s games, respectively. Dave Martinez has hinted at the idea of using an opener in certain situations this season. Perhaps Avilan and McGowin are auditioning for that role.

As for the true starters, we now know with certainty who they’ll be.

Now it’s time to become event planners, if you will. We know that Scherzer will be pitching on April 1. After that, the Nationals will have an off-day, then play the next five days.

As long as Strasburg can remain on schedule, he’ll throw next on Monday, which will leave his next scheduled day as Saturday, April 3. Conveniently, that’s Washington’s second regular season game.

Patrick Corbin last pitched in a simulated game on Monday. And as outlined above, Jon Lester and Joe Ross each pitched in Tuesday’s game. There are numerous ways this could go.

  • Let Corbin throw on either Sunday or Monday, and then make his next start on the following Sunday, April 4
    • Lester could subsequently throw on the other day, toss an extra bullpen session between start, and make his regular season debut on April 5
      • Ross would likely serve as a reliever to close Spring Training and get skipped the first time through the rotation, instead serving as a long reliever until mid-April
    • Alternatively, the plan laid out for Lester could be used on Ross – providing space between the two left-handers
      • Lester would likely throw a pair of simulated games before debuting in a regular season game on either Tuesday, April 6 or the following day – depending on whether Martinez wants to give Scherzer an extra day off or keep him on standard rest
  • Use Lester on Sunday and Ross on Monday and Corbin in a simulated/B game
    • Lester would start on April 4, Corbin the following day, and Ross would likely be skipped
      • Ross could be used on April 5 instead, and Corbin in one of the next two games
  • Ross could also pitch on Sunday and Lester on Monday, with Corbin still throwing some form of side session
    • Would keep Corbin and Lester – in some order – on more standard rest for starts on April 4 and 5
      • Ross would revert to a long relief role to begin the season

Let’s cross our fingers that by Monday’s spring finale, there will be more clarity on precisely what approach they’re taking. The most normal option seems to be the last one – starting Ross on Sunday, Lester on Monday, Corbin on April 5 and Lester again on April 6 with Ross briefly moving to the bullpen. But who really knows if that’s what the team is thinking? And by the way, these plans only work if Strasburg is, in fact, okay. I’m not ready to think about what happens if he isn’t.

Hitters

There isn’t much that isn’t already decided. But now that the season is approaching, the ways players are hitting is becoming increasingly important.

Who’s Hot

  • Josh Bell: 6-for-11 (three singles, double, two home runs), five runs, four RBIs
  • Kyle Schwarber: 5-for-11 (single, two doubles, two home runs), two walks, four runs,
  • Luis Garcia: 4-for-9 (two singles, double, home run), three RBIs
  • Ryan Zimmerman: 3-for-7 (single, two home runs), four RBIs

Who’s Not

  • Trea Turner: 1-for-12 (single), three walks, one strikeout
  • Carter Kieboom: 0-for-10, two walks, six strikeouts
  • Juan Soto: 0-for-7, two walks, two strikeouts
  • Yan Gomes: 0-for-6, two strikeouts

What it Means

Bell and Zimmerman have been hitting extremely well all spring, but Schwarber and Garcia hadn’t been. It might not matter how Garcia hits. He might be heading to AAA Rochester regardless. But Schwarber is going to be relied upon as an everyday player – or at least close to it.

Turner needs to hit, but he would be hitting near the top of the lineup regardless of what he did during Spring Training. The same goes for Soto, who has also struggled this spring. Gomes was also guaranteed to get at least 50% of the play time behind the plate. But Kieboom had something to prove, and something to earn. He hasn’t earned it, and now he’s put himself at risk of being demoted to AAA – which seemed impossible entering the season.

Other Lineup Updates

On Thursday, Victor Robles hit somewhere other than leadoff (ninth) for the first time all spring. Turner led off the other time, and Soto hit directly behind Turner in all three games that each of them played. Bell or Zimmerman has consistently hit behind them, followed by Starlin Castro (in the one game he played), Schwarber and Josh Harrison.

Gerardo Parra and Hernan Perez have both continued to hit well. One or both of them could easily make the Opening Day roster at the expense of Garcia and/or Kieboom.

In other lineup-related news, Castro hasn’t played since Tuesday due to injury, but an MRI revealed it to be a “very minor” hamstring strain. And Soto was also out of the lineup on Friday with a calf cramp – talk about extreme precaution!

Bullpen

Dakota Bacus and Ryne Harper were both optioned to Rochester on Thursday, removing some more competition in the race for (likely) eight bullpen spots.

Speaking of options, Austin Voth and Erick Fedde don’t have any. We already knew Voth didn’t have the ability to be sent to the minor leagues without being exposed to waivers, but now Fedde finds himself in the same position after an independent arbiter rescinded the fourth option year he was granted last season. In other words, they’re both very likely to make the Opening Day roster.

Brad Hand had an ugly pair of appearances recently, but he’s making the roster and likely remaining the closer. Tanner Rainey rebounded from an ugly debut, tossing a no-hit, scoreless inning on Wednesday. Wander Suero outperformed Daniel Hudson and Kyle Finnegan – and Sam Clay, although he seemed like an outside candidate, anyway.

Avilan still appears to be the top non-roster invitee bullpen arm, although he didn’t really outproduce Javy Guerra or T.J. McFarland over this four-game stretch.

For now, we’ll say the bullpen looks like this: Hand (closer), Rainey, Hudson, Will Smith, Suero, Avilan (lefty), Fedde, Voth.

The caveat is that Smith might not be available to start the season due to a blood clot-related scare. But there was determined to be no blood clot, so the only real issue seems to be ramping him back up towards being usable in games. If he isn’t and has to start the season on the Injured List, Finnegan will likely take his role.

Likely Roster Moves

There are currently five too many active players on the 40-man roster. It won’t be as easy as optioning five players to the minor leagues, though, because there might be as many as three players from outside the 40-man roster who make the Opening Day roster.

This is a non-issue if only one non-roster invitee, Fedde and Voth make the roster. But if two or three players are selected, one or two will have to be waived, traded, or clear waivers and be sent outright to the minor leagues – which is always a risky proposition.

Left-handed pitchers Sam Clay and Seth Romero, right-hander Kyle McGowin and outfielder Yadiel Hernandez will almost certainly be option to the minors, and Finnegan will too as long as Harris is okay. Then for every one of Parra and Perez who make the team, one of Kieboom and Garcia have to be optioned. While I think Garcia is more likely to end up on the losing end, I don’t think he should.

We’ll see what happens by Tuesday morning, though.

Upcoming Schedule

I’ve outlined it pretty well already, but here’s a more detailed look at the Nationals’ schedule leading up to Opening Day.

  • Sunday: vs. Cardinals, 1:05 p.m. on MASN
  • Monday: vs. Astros, 1:05 p.m. on MASN
  • Tuesday: off
  • Wednesday: off
  • Thursday (Opening Day): vs. Mets, 7:09 p.m. on ESPN

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

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