It’s a problem many other teams would gladly take on. The Washington Nationals have received several pleasantly surprising contributions from bench players and former minor leaguers alike while 11 of their players work their way back from injuries.
But it’s still a problem, nonetheless. It’s a problem the Nats are running out of time to solve, with second baseman Daniel Murphy (knee) reportedly just a few rehab games away from making his season debut and left fielder Adam Eaton (ankle) aiming for a June 8 return.
The first couple moves will be simple. Fourth outfielder Andrew Stevenson and his .613 OPS will head down to AAA-Syracuse once Brian Goodwin (wrist) rejoins the team as early as this weekend. Murphy shouldn’t be too far behind and will likely take the spot of infielder Adrian Sanchez, who hasn’t appeared in a game since Sunday.
“He’s progressing really well,” Davey Martinez said of Murphy. “My assumption, and I’m not on the medical staff, and he’s ready, he’s itching to come back, so, I’m hoping it will be fairly soon.”
After that, things begin to get dicey. Left-handed reliever Matt Grace (groin) is set to rejoin the club this weekend as well. Set-up man Ryan Madson (chest) was activated off the 10-Day Disabled List on Thursday, pushing righty Trevor Gott back down to AAA. The only other relievers left in the bullpen with minor-league options are Sammy Solis and Wander Suero.
“We’ve still got a few days,” Martinez said prior to Madson’s reinstatement. “Hopefully, nobody gets injured, but we’ve got some big decisions to make. I’m glad these guys are coming back. When those decisions need to be made, we’ll be ready to make them.”
Solis has appeared in more games than any other Nationals relievers this season, posting a 4.05 ERA and 12.2 K/9 across 29 appearances. Suero has been effective in his own right — he owns a 2.70 ERA in 10 innings — but will likely be the odd man out considering he’d never reached the big leagues prior to this season. The team could just designate Grace for assignment, but it’s unlikely Washington will sacrifice depth unnecessarily.
Once Eaton comes back in June, the front office will have to make a choice: demote the hot-hitting Juan Soto or release one of their power bats in Matt Adams or Mark Reynolds. Soto’s play has likely been enough to justify keeping him in the starting lineup over the struggling Michael Taylor, so Mike Rizzo and Co. would almost certainly come under heavy scrutiny if they were to send him back down to the minors.
Adams sits second on the team with 12 home runs this season, can play both first base and left field and crushes right-handed pitching. Reynolds didn’t join the team until May 13 but already has six homers, can play both first and third base and sports solid numbers against pitchers throwing from either side. The sample size is smaller (Adams: 151 PA, Reynolds: 47) but Reynolds boasts a stronger resume and appears to be popular in the clubhouse.
However, this decision very well could come down to money. Adams signed a $4-million deal in December whereas Reynolds, despite hitting 30 homers for Colorado last season, inked a minor-league contract April 12 following an offseason devoid of any MLB offers. The Nats’ front office likely won’t want to waste its investment in Adams and will be forced to part ways with Reynolds. Odds are, he won’t be a free agent for very long this time.
Given no one else makes their way onto the disabled list, the Nats will face another quandary once Ryan Zimmerman (oblique) feels healthy enough to play again. Infielder Wilmer Difo won’t be going anywhere, leaving the Nats to choose between shrinking their bullpen from eight men to seven or parting ways with a backup outfielder in either Goodwin or Taylor.
As mentioned previously, Solis is unlikely to be demoted considering how often the Nationals use him. Instead, the team will be forced to either release one of its veterans or place an out-of-options reliever such as Grace or Tim Collins on waivers. The most obvious candidate is Shawn Kelley, who is posting better numbers than he did last year but has still allowed three home runs in 10 innings of work.
Kelley will be owed what’s left of his $5.5 million salary, but that might be a sacrifice the team is willing to make. Collins and fellow recent roster addition Justin Miller have been impressive in their short stints with the club and the team saw its fair share of relief struggles prior to their promotions to the majors.
The duo has helped settle down a bullpen crew that owns a 3.13 ERA in the month of May. Either Collins or Miller could see the wheels come off in the next few weeks, but Washington has already seen pretty much all that Kelley has to offer and would likely have to move on from him anyway if it acquired any bullpen help at the trade deadline.
Of course, Bryce Harper could run into a wall or Trea Turner goes blind and none of this would even matter. However, if all things go right, the Nationals will have to let go of some of their depth. It’s a problem many other teams would gladly take on.
But it’s still a problem, nonetheless.