Nationals' Roster Update As We Make the Turn Towards Spring

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

A look at the Washington Nationals have done to improve their roster since the end of the 2013 campaign. All the moves and non-moves that have left the Nats where they stand today as Spring Training 2014 approaches and what might still happen this winter...

With snow on the ground and on my last vacation day before slogging back to work on Monday, I thought I would spend my time on Nats baseball. I start with my roster forecast from last October, compare that with what actually happened, and finish up with a couple of notes going forward. Some of this is simply a condensation of old news, so you can skip it, skim it or go whole hog and read through the the many links (the comments on the MLBTR site on the Fister trade are especially entertaining). Consider it today's edition of staring out the window and waiting for Spring.

Educated Guesses

I first covered Roster Mechanics this offseason with my post on October 21. Looking back I'm pretty pleased; that post turned out to be pretty good prognosticating. I correctly anticipated that Steven Souza and Sammy Solis would be added to the 40-Man roster before the Rule 5 Draft. Those two were obvious promotions (particularly after their performances in the Arizona Fall League). I give myself a bit more credit for saying that another likely promotion was Aaron Barrett, who was indeed added to the Nats' 40-Man roster. I also noted that, of the other Rule 5 eligibles, Adrien Nieto was the most likely player to be taken in the Rule 5 Draft. My evaluation for why he was unlikely to be protected by the Nationals:

Nieto hasn’t been a consistent impact bat, has not played above A+ ball, and according to Luke Erickson at Nationals Prospects, he has a defensive hole in his game as he struggles to block pitches.

Other expected roster deletions (beyond the obvious two of Dan Haren and Chad Tracy) were Chris Marrero, Tyler Robertson, and Mauro Gomez. Noting that the Nationals would have a roster crunch if they picked up an additional #4/#5 starter, a LHRP (I advocated Eric O'Flaherty), a 4th OF/LH bench bat (I advocated David DeJesus) and/or a backup catcher (I advocated going after Dioner Navarro), I did say that the Nationals could deal with their roster backlog by making another Gio Gonzalez-type trade. Although I noted that such trades are difficult to pull off, I cited the value in packaging roster depth for an impact player. I also noted that Corey Brown was a release candidate, although I guessed that one of the two LHRP (Abad or Cedeno, likely Abad) would go first.

What Actually Happened (so far)

As expected Marrero was the first to go, DFA'd just four days later to make room for Souza (the timing, I believe, was so that Souza would not become a minor league free agent after the World Series). Marrero refused his minor league assignment and became a free agent, later signing a minor league deal with the Orioles. Gomez went a couple of weeks later, bound for Japan. As it turns out I was right that Brown would survive a LHRP purge, as Abad and Robertson were both DFA'd on November 20. The Nats and Rizzo'd BFF Billy Beane worked out a trade for Abad, with the Nats acquiring a marginal prospect, minor league OF John Wooten. Robertson cleared waivers and was assigned to Triple-A Syracuse. These moves cleared the way for the Nationals to add Solis and Barrett to the 40 man roster, which I had expected, while also adding OF Michael Taylor. I missed on Taylor, but the Nats were probably swayed by his tools, his improvement in A+ this season at the age of 22 and his impressive 51 SB in 58 attempts. FWIW, Taylor had a great winter league season in Puerto Rico, posting a .365/.428/.511 slash. So maybe Rizzo knows better than me. :-) I correctly called both that Nieto would not be protected and that he would be lost in the Rule 5 draft; as he was taken by the Chicago White Sox. We'll see whether, as with most Rule 5 picks, Nieto finds his way back to Nats Town.

Rizzo shrugged off my concerns about the difficulty of pulling another Gio-type trade and dropped that bombshell on December 3 when the Nats stunned everyone (especially Tiger fans - see the comments in the link) by trading Robbie Ray, Steve Lombardozzi and Ian Krol to Detroit for RHP Doug Fister. One month ago today, and it seems like so long ago! Having shipped out two of their top LHRP options in the Fister trade, the Nationals then flipped undersized but promising OF Billy Burns to Beane and the A's for LHRP Jerry Blevins. Blevins quickly joined into the Nationals spirit; I like him already. While the Nationals missed out on DeJesus, they signed Nate McLouth for the 4th OF/LH bench bat role. That was it for Corey Brown; although he outlasted Abad, he could not survive the McLouth signing. He was DFA'd and flipped to (all together now) Billy Beane and the A's for a grande latte cash considerations.

Summary

The Nationals' 40 man roster remains full up. Since last season ended nine players have been removed: Haren; Tracy; Marrero; Gomez; Abad; Robertson; Lombardozzi; Krol; and Brown. Haren and Tracy simply made room for Detwiler and Garcia as they came off the 60 day DL at the end of last season. The Nats have filled the other seven roster spots with: Souza; Solis; Barrett; Taylor; Fister; Blevins; and McLouth. Any additions from here will require someone else to be dropped. The problem is that the Nationals' 40-Man roster doesn't really have very much deadwood - a good problem to have, but constraining. I would guess that the first candidates to go would be Erik Davis, Ryan Mattheus, or (if they add another catcher) Jhonatan Solano. While none (barring injury) are expected to start the season in NatsTown they all have some value as members of what will be a fairly extensive "taxi squad" in AAA Syracuse. This cost has to be figured in to any additional pickup that doesn't also create roster space.

And that cost is why I expect that a trade is more likely than a free agent signing going forward. There is one free agent move I would be OK with - signing O'Flaherty for the bullpen. The Nationals have obviously done well with pitchers who have had TJ surgery. But there is no getting around that O'Flaherty won't be pitching until May or June, and even then may not be 100% in 2014. If O'Flaherty insists on a one year deal at full market rates, it may be a better bet to stay in house or make a trade if the Nats want a second LHRP. They have two starting pitchers as candidates (Ross Detwiler and Solis). I think both are unlikely, since I believe Detwiler is the #5 starter and Solis would be, at least for now, better kept stretched out as a starter in the minors. They also have Xavier Cedeno. Don't laugh; having Blevins enables the Nationals to use a second lefty as a pure LOOGY, and Cedeno has always been tough on lefties (.231/.320/.308 for his career). That's why I flagged him as more likely to be kept than Abad, who struggled against LH batters last year. Cedeno has also had what, based on advanced statistical modelling, Fangraphs has called the best winter league season of any pitcher. In that link Fangraphs states:

Pitcher Xavier Cedeno‘s performance for Santurce of the Puerto Rican League was a bit very excellent — and also not entirely without precedent. The left-hander recorded a strikeout rate of 26.1% with Houston in 2012. After a super miserable start to his 2013 campaign — during which interval he conceded 11 runs in just 6.1 innings and was subsequently claimed off waivers by Washington — he recorded similar rates both in the minor and major leagues.

The only other need, potentially, is backup catcher. The problem is, there are few options out there on the open market.

People have heard of John Buck and I've seen several beating the drum for his signing, but after his astonishing (read: fluky) April he turned right back into John Buck. And as I noted in my fanpost a couple of weeks ago, Buck's limited offense is more than offset by his lousy defense, especially his pitch framing - which is why Chris Snyder (or Sandy Leon) may well turn out to be better backup catcher options going forward even before adding in the cost of jettisoning a player from the 40-Man roster.

So other than O'Flaherty, the free agent options are limited. If Rizzo can make another trade that burns up some of the back end of the 40-Man roster in getting a candidate, that might work, but that's easier said than done.

This is why the current focus should be on exploring fair and reasonable (whatever that means in today's baseball market) extensions for Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann. Get it done, Rizzo!

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