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End of season stock watch: Who makes the Nationals' postseason roster?

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Since there was some other kind of excitement going on, it was hard to get too much of a read on some players making their case in Sunday's game. Two players who were fighting for spots on the bench came through with hits. An extreme long shot didn't even get to bat in the game, but made a play that Nationals fans will remember fondly for the rest of their lives.

Steven Souza made a no-hitter saving catch that will live forever in Washington Nationals history.  He does not seem likely to make the postseason roster, though.
Steven Souza made a no-hitter saving catch that will live forever in Washington Nationals history. He does not seem likely to make the postseason roster, though.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Before I get started, I have to say what a proud day yesterday was for this franchise.  Jordan Zimmermann threw the Nationals first no-hitter since the franchise moved to Washington, D.C.  Patrick spun a lot of words about it, so I'm not going to spend too much time talking about it here.  It was the third no-hitter ever thrown by a pitcher for a Washington, D.C. franchise.  If you follow the Expos history, this was the franchise's fifth no-hitter, and first since El Presidente threw a perfect game on July 28, 1991.  The no-hitter gave me great pride in being a Nationals fan.  Even if Steven Souza Jr. hand't made that catch, though, this was a day to be proud of as a Nationals fan.

As an out of market fan, I didn't have the chance to be at today's game.  I want to give props to the D.C. faithful for the tremendous fan support that this team has gotten all season long.  As I watched the game on television, I was blown away by the intensity that the crowd was bringing to today's game.  Considering the result had no bearing on the standings, the atmosphere was as electric as a playoff game.

The crowd singing Ryan Zimmerman Happy Birthday in the first inning was tremendous.  The standing ovations when Denard Span, Adam LaRoche, and Bryce Harper were removed for pinch runners gave me chills.  The roars of the crowd when Tyler Moore, Kevin Frandsen, and Danny Espinosa snagged liners in the fifth inning were outstanding.  The cheers for Jordan Zimmermann when he came to the plate (and hit his second single!) were amazing.  Finally, this happened:

At about the 5 second mark of that video, we hear 35,000+ people go from standing and feverishly cheering with every fiber of their being to collectively gasping.  I wasn't at the game, but when that ball was hit, I let out an expletive.  Just as many of you were, I let out a scream as the ball hit Souza's glove at about the 9 second mark.  Then I looked back and did a double take to make sure, because I hoped my eyes hadn't just played a trick on me.  There was just no way that he actually made that catch, was there?  He did!  It led to the loudest roar I've heard since the Werthquake in Game 4 of the NLDS two years ago.

Thank you Nats!  Thank you D.C. Faithful!  You guys are awesome!

Let's get down to business....

The Locks

Player Position Spots
Wilson Ramos C 1
Adam LaRoche 1b 2
Asdrubal Cabrera 2b 3
Anthony Rendon 3b 4
Ian Desmond SS 5
Bryce Harper LF/CF 6
Denard Span CF 7
Jayson Werth RF 8
Ryan Zimmerman LF/PH 9
Danny Espinosa 2b/SS 10
Kevin Frandsen 1b/2b/3b/LF 11
Nate Schierholtz OF 12
Jose Lobaton C 13
Stephen Strasburg SP 14
Jordan Zimmermann SP 15
Doug Fister SP 16
Gio Gonzalez SP 17
Tanner Roark RP 18
Drew Storen RP 19
Tyler Clippard RP 20
Matt Thornton RP (L) 21
Jerry Blevins RP (L) 22
Aaron Barrett RP 23

Nate Schierholtz

Schierholtz hasn't had a very good season, but he has actually been solid lately.  As I've said the past few days, he has a built in advantage because the Nats have no other left-handed options off the bench.  After going 1 for 2 in Sunday's finale, Schierholtz closed September out with a .276/.323/.379 line in 31 September plate appearances.  Is this a small sample?  Absolutely.  Still, the bar isn't set particularly high by his competition for a spot and he has the fact that he's left-handed on his side.  He's on the roster.

Still two men short

I've chosen to stick with only 23 players that are locked onto the roster because there's still some flexibility.  The Nationals don't have to decide who they're carrying on the postseason roster until Friday morning, so we'll know who their opponent is before they have to make the final decisions.  There's a possibility that who they're playing could dictate the final bullpen spot(s).  We now know that the wildcard game will be between the Pirates and Giants.  Their offenses are not built the same.

I'll go into a little more depth with this later this week when I break down the possible opponents.  For today, let's just say that the Pirates would appear to have more left-handed batters that could pose a threat than the Giants have.

  • Pittsburgh employs a pure platoon at first base.  They'll usually start Ike Davis against right-handed pitchers.  However, the moment that their opponent goes to a lefty (which is usually specifically for Davis), Clint Hurdle will replace him with Gaby Sanchez.  Most of their projected bench bats are left-handed.  They'll likely start either Gregory Polanco or Travis Snider in right field.  Both are left-handed. Snider has had a reverse split this season. Polanco has struggled all year against LHP.  Whichever one doesn't start will be on the bench.  Andrew Lambo and/or Pedro Alvarez (returning from injury, but they've said they haven't ruled him out if they reach the NLDS) are both left-handed.  It's also noteworthy that, while he's a switch-hitter, Neil Walker slugs more than 100 points higher against RHP than LHP.
  • San Francisco doesn't really have quite as much left-handed thunder.  Pablo Sandoval (a switch-hitter) has shown massive platoon splits (.200/.245/.321 vs. LHP this year) that could be exploited by bringing in a lefty.  Brandon Belt has only been back for about a week and a half after missing about a month with a concussion.  He did start to heat up a bit this weekend.  Outside of Belt and (turning around) Sandoval, there just aren't very many intimidating left-handed bats here.  Brandon Crawford, Gregor Blanco, Joe Panik, and Matt Duffy can be tough outs, but they're not the kind of players that you build your roster around dealing with.
If the Pirates win the wildcard game, taking a third lefty (Detwiler) instead of Soriano, Stammen, or that extra bench spot could be a good idea.  Over a 162 game season, you don't focus quite as much on specific matchups in setting the roster.  In a short series, those specific matchups can end up playing a larger role.  Teams are allowed to make changes to their roster before each series, so the Nats could theoretically make a change for the NLCS if they get past the wildcard winner in the NLDS.

Once more with the debate... Extra bench bat or extra reliever

Once again, the opponent could be a factor here.... as could their starting catcher's health.  If the thinking is that the extra bench bat could be Taylor, who has been mentioned in this series all week, we have to pay attention to how the opposing battery handles the running game.

Player Team SBA CS CS%
Russell Martin PIT 59 37 0.385
Buster Posey SF 59 25 0.298
Andrew Susac SF 17 8 0.320
Chris Stewart PIT 30 8 0.211
Tony Sanchez PIT 18 3 0.143

I've included all three Pittsburgh catchers because Martin is currently day-to-day with a hamstring injury.  He started Saturday and had to be pulled from the game.  He did not play Sunday.  If he's ready to go, he's clearly the most dangerous catcher to run on of the bunch.  With Belt still recovering from the concussion, there's a decent chance that Susac starts a game behind the plate with Posey moving to first base... this would be most likely to happen in Gio Gonzalez's start.

Of course, the idea behind carrying an extra bench spot for a pinch runner isn't limited to stolen bases.  Wilson Ramos and Adam LaRoche are among the slowest players in the league.  Ryan Zimmerman also hasn't shown that he's ready to run at full strength since returning from his hamstring injury.  If one of these players ended up in scoring position in a game that's close and late, having a pinch runner who would likely score from second on a single (or that the Nats would feel more confident in sending from third on a grounder or medium depth sac fly) would come in handy.

Options

To fill the final two spots, I've pretty much decided to trim the list down to four players.  The bullpen guys are there based on both their season long and recent performance.  The hitter is there because he fills an area that no other option for the roster does.  Here goes:

Rafael Soriano RP
Craig Stammen RP
Ross Detwiler RP
Michael Taylor CF

Why did I eliminate Hairston and Souza?

Someone had to go.  Let's cover Hairston first.  Hairston hit a single in his only plate appearance on Sunday.  It was his first hit since August 26.  Here are his splits this season.

Opp. AB AVG OBP SLG 2B HR RBI BB K
vs. Left 52 .250 .293 .327 4 0 4 3 15
vs. Right 25 .120 .172 .240 0 1 4 1 11


He hasn't mashed lefties like he's supposed to.  He's been pretty useless against righties.  Danny Espinosa and Kevin Frandsen hit left-handers better than right-handers in their career as well, and both have hit righties better than Hairston has this season.  Zimmerman would be the primary bat off the bench regardless of which hand the opposing pitcher throws with.  Basically, Hairston would be the fourth right-handed option off the bench and a guy that can only hit left-handed pitching.  He brings neither defensive value nor speed to the table.

Sunday's tremendous catch aside, Steven Souza does not offer the defensive upgrade that a player like Taylor does.  He doesn't offer the type of pinch running threat that a player like Taylor does either.  When I began this four day exercise after Thursday's doubleheader, I said that I didn't think Souza was even being considered because he was the lone contender that didn't start at least one of those two games.  This held true in Sunday's finale as well.  Schierholtz, Hairston, and Taylor all came in much earlier in the game.  We haven't gotten enough of an opportunity to see Souza hit major league pitching to feel that he'd be a demonstrably better hitter than Hairston, Taylor, or Tyler Moore.

Whatever the reason may be, the Nats didn't really commit to giving Souza many major league plate appearances in September.  I understand that the starting outfielders (and Zimmerman) took most of those at bats, as they should have.  Hairston and Souza made the same amount of starts (2), while Hairston still got more pinch hitting opportunities (even when there was a RHP on the mound) than Souza did.

Based on age, professional exprience, and performance, Souza is a more advanced (not better, but more advanced) prospect than Taylor.  However, Taylor got 21 PA in September to Souza's 13.  That's part of the reason that I've been pushing the idea that Michael Taylor might be an option.  Taylor's abilities in areas outside of the batter's box are superior to Souza, though Souza is the more polished hitter.

Let's get to the four I've mentioned

Rafael Soriano

Among the three bullpen options, Soriano is the most experienced.  What's more, here are their season statistics:

Player G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP
Rafael Soriano 64 62 8.56 2.76 0.58 .280 73.8% 31.6% 4.8% 3.19 3.08 3.92
Craig Stammen 49 72.2 6.94 1.73 0.62 .323 69.3% 48.0% 7.7% 3.84 3.19 3.40
Ross Detwiler 47 63 5.57 3.00 0.71 .309 69.0% 46.3% 7.4% 4.00 4.16 4.47


Even with the rough second half, Soriano has had the best season of the three.  Four of his past six outings have been scoreless.  In three of those, he hasn't yielded a baserunner that was his fault (Souza's error the other day cost him a baserunner).  I wouldn't want Soriano pitching in any type of leverage situation, but he's been as good as Stammen and Detwiler have been this season.

Craig Stammen

Stammen can point to three outings that have torpedoed his ERA.  Take away those three outings where he gave up a combined fifteen runs (he's allowed just 34 all season) and his ERA drops from 3.84 to 2.03.  Of course, every pitcher can say that their numbers would look considerably better if you took away a handful of their worst appearances.  Those outings happened.

Stammen is in the running for two reasons: His versatility and the fact that those bad outings tend to be few and far between.  Stammen has proven that he's a strong enough reliever to be able to handle a role as a secondary setup man capable of working in a high leverage situation.  He's also capable of going multiple innings because of his background as a starting pitcher.  While the Nats will be carrying a starter in the bullpen, it could be advantageous to have a second reliever capable of throwing multiple innings in case a game goes to extra innings.  He was a sure thing until getting lit up in Game 2 of Friday's doubleheader, so he's still a favorite to be in the bullpen.

Ross Detwiler

He would clearly be third on the depth chart among left-handed relievers.  He would also be a clear third option among the candidates to work multiple innings out of the bullpen.  I could only see Detwiler getting a shot at the postseason roster if the Nationals decide to carry a third left-hander.  This would only happen against the Pirates, and I'm not so sure it's a strategy I would like to see employed.

Michael Taylor

I've talked a lot about him these past few days, so I feel like I'm repeating myself.  In terms of pinch hitting, Taylor would be used only in case of an emergency.  Zimmerman, Espinosa, Schierholtz, and Frandsen would all have to be used already.  Instead, he would be in a specialist role.  He would be available to either pinch run or to give them a defensive upgrade over Jayson Werth in right field.  While the experience that a player such as Hairston has is a useful asset, Taylor brings more to the table in areas where the Nationals don't already have a surplus (such as right-handed bench bats who can only hit lefties).

Who should they choose?

For me, it's an easy decision to run with a sixth position player on the bench.  While the depth of the Nats lineup is important, the Nationals are in this position because of their starting pitching.  They led the majors with a 3.04 ERA from their starters this season.  Their starters also ranked fifth in the majors with 1,002.1 IP, so they tend to work deep into ballgames.  With no more than two games scheduled in a row, the "A" bullpen options should remain fresh enough so that I'm not particularly worried about loading up with an extra reliever that will probably never be used.

Among position players, there's only one guy that the Nationals should ever even consider pinch hitting for in a crucial situation.  That would be Adam LaRoche against a tough lefty late in a ballgame.  LaRoche hit just .204/.284/.336 against lefties this season.  Nobody else has any real platoon issues.  Apart from Zimmerman possibly pinch hitting for LaRoche, the pinch hitters are only going to come into play when the pitcher's spot comes up.  For this reason, the final bench option should be a player who adds something that isn't necessarily in the batter's box.

I'll take Stammen and Taylor.  Stammen gives more flexibility than Soriano does, and both are just better options than Detwiler.  Taylor gives them that potential speed threat off the bench in a late situation where a pinch runner could be the difference maker who could steal 90 feet on the basepaths, either with a stolen base or by taking an extra base on a ball in play.

Since I'm happy after Jordan Zimmermann's no-hitter yesterday, how about some up tempo music today.  I'll even use a D.C. band.