It’s Christmas for baseball fans as teams around the league are all reporting for Spring Training this week. The Washington Nationals’ pitchers and catchers reported for duty yesterday and will have their first official workout later today.
Once the almighty hangover died down, the defending World Series champions had yet another busy offseason as Mike Rizzo and the rest of the front office went to work.
Last year the emphasis was on energizing the team with fresh faces following a disappointing year. However, this time around the focus was more about “getting the band back together.”
After that flurry of activity and with the 40-man roster full, it's time to make an early projection as to who will likely be donning the curly-w on Opening Day...
Catchers: Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki
This group was by far the easiest to project as the men who don the tools of ignorance virtually pick themselves with Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes set to resume their platoon.
With the 26th roster spot this year, it’s not out of the realms of possibility that Welington Castillo, Raudy Read, or Tres Barrera could be kept around as a third catcher, freeing up the other two to pinch hit. But with quality depth in other places, that seems unlikely.
Infielders: Ryan Zimmerman, Eric Thames, Howie Kendrick, Starlin Castro, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Trea Turner, Carter Kieboom
The first six names in this list are all in ink on the Opening Day roster barring injury.
Though Trea Turner will be the only everyday player, the other five veterans will rotate to some degree to keep them all fresh and take advantage of matchups on a given day.
That then brings us to the team’s top prospect, Carter Kieboom.
All eyes will be on the young infielder as all signs point to him having an inside track to the team’s starting third base job if he can perform this spring.
Kieboom has all the talent to hit in the major leagues, despite what the small sample size he has from last season says. He’s proven that in Triple-A, so it will all be about familiarity and his ability to adjust to the adjustments that big league pitchers will make to get him out.
If he doesn’t impress, the Nationals would likely start the season with some combination of Cabrera, Kendrick, and Castro at third base. That would give the team time to give Kieboom some extra seasoning in the minor leagues before calling him up mid-season.
That could then open up that roster spot for Wilmer Difo or Adrian Sanchez as a utility infielder, an extra catcher or outfielder, but not a pitcher due to the 13-man limit on them.
Another potential factor is that if the Nats keep Kieboom down in the minor leagues until April 22nd, they would gain another year of control over him contractually. This usually doesn’t significantly affect decisions the Nationals have made in the past but it would be naive to simply ignore it when discussing whether the youngster will be on the roster.
In the end, if Kieboom impresses like he did last spring, he’ll be the starting third baseman and play a key role as a rookie, so that’s what we’re going with in this projection.
That outcome would leave Difo and Sanchez in limbo as both are now out of minor league options and likely to be designated for assignment at some point before Opening Day.
Outfielders: Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Adam Eaton, Michael A. Taylor
The Nationals’ starting outfield for virtually the entire 2019 season is intact for 2020, meaning the only question here is what the team does with regards to backup outfielders.
While Baby Shark, Gerardo Parra, occupied the fourth outfielder and expert cheerleader role with great success last year, Michael A. Taylor spent most of the season down in Double-A slashing a fairly nondescript .248/.324/.463 for Harrisburg.
Taylor’s speed and defense make him a nice fit as a bench outfielder in late-game situations. That profile combined with the fact he’s now out of minor league options makes him the front-runner for the gig, especially if he reverts to Grapefruit League MVP form this spring.
Taylor is far from a lock for this spot though given his constant struggles at the major league level. That leaves a slight opening for Andrew Stevenson, who does have one option remaining, to potentially steal the fourth outfielder role from Taylor with a strong spring.
There’s also Yadiel Hernandez who could get a decent look this spring after putting up big numbers in Triple-A last year, though his inability to play center field hampers his chances.
Starting Pitchers: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sánchez, Joe Ross
Much like the outfield, you can lock in all but one spot in the starting rotation already. The four horses are back again and ready to be the driving force of another competitive team.
The fifth starter spot, a role that is almost always a multi-player battle heading into Spring Training, is likely to come down to three players: Joe Ross, Erick Fedde, and Austin Voth.
Of the three, Ross is the most proven at the highest level with multiple spells of solid big league performance throughout his career, so he likely opens camp as the favorite. He is also out of options too, so if he doesn’t make the team, he’ll be exposed to waivers.
Voth, who is also out of options, seems to be his main competition for the job.
The right-hander had eight promising starts last season, posting a solid 3.48 ERA in those outings while showing solid velocity and excellent command. If he can replicate that form while Ross struggles this spring, he will have a very compelling case to be in the rotation.
So despite Fedde’s impressive run as a starter last year, he seems like the outsider given that he has a rare fourth minor league option. That makes him an ideal, proven player to act as rotation depth in the minor leagues if and when he’s required.
For now, we’ll give Ross the benefit of the doubt that his shuffling between the bullpen and rotation was a big factor in his overall poor 2019 season and start him off as the fifth starter.
Don’t sleep on Wil Crowe here though. The right-hander will be Rule 5 eligible after the season, so is likely to be added to the 40-man roster in the next 10 months anyway, so if he dominates, he could fly under-the-radar and steal the job if the other three falter.
Relief Pitchers: Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, Will Harris, Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, Hunter Strickland, Roenis Elías, Austin Voth
Though it might be a stretch to call the bullpen a strength for the Nationals in 2020, this group already looks a lot better than this time 12 months ago.
Sean Doolittle is back as the team’s closer after he got back on track at the end of the year. He’ll be joined in high-leverage spots by postseason hero Daniel Hudson and Will Harris who were both big free agent acquisitions to bolster the back-end of the bullpen.
While both Tanner Rainey and Wander Suero have minor league options remaining, they seemed to do enough in 2019 to lock in their spots on the Opening Day bullpen in 2020.
The last three spots will at least have some intrigue in them heading into Spring Training.
Roenis Elías is a wild card given how little the Nats saw of him in game action thanks to a hamstring injury. But as the closer for the Seattle Mariners, while also being a the only non-Doolittle lefty in the bullpen, he likely has enough to be a virtual lock barring a disaster this spring.
The loser in the fifth starter competition out of Voth and Ross would seem to make sense as the eighth man in the bullpen to provide length and be a spot starter. Given both are out of options, it would allow the Nats to keep both rather than risk losing one.
So the pitcher whose spot is in the most jeopardy is Hunter Strickland. After initially impressing after being acquired at the trade deadline the wheels fell off for him, posting a 9.00 in his final 14 regular season appearances and four runs in two postseason innings.
Notably, the righty was given a contract right before the non-tender deadline, meaning the team was likely seriously considering non-tendering him. But now, the Nats could cut him halfway through Spring Training with minimal dead money, so he’ll have to make an early impression.
If Strickland doesn’t get off to a hot start, then there’s a chance they could give a shot to someone like Ryne Harper, James Bourque or Kyle Finnegan who are already on the 40-man roster, or potentially a non-roster invitee in Javy Guerra, Dakota Bacus, or David Hernandez.
To start with, we'll tentatively put Strickland in that final bullpen spot based on his decent start with the team in 2019, but this will be a full-blown competition this spring.
Six weeks from today, the Nationals will be getting ready to play their first regular season game in defense of their World Series title. There’s plenty of time for the outlook to change, but right now, the likely 26-man roster already seems to be taking shape.