It feels like the Washington Nationals only kicked off Spring Training last week, but we’re actually already over halfway from pitchers and catchers reporting to Opening Day.
While some teams have started to make some of their first camp cuts by reassigning players to minor league camp, the Nationals have yet to make such moves. However, that could change this weekend with a particular deadline looming.
This Sunday, 16 days into Spring Training, is the last chance for the Nats to release players on non-guaranteed arbitration salaries for their minimum guaranteed money.
Here’s the exact excerpt on the MLB.com website that covers this situation...
Players who are on arbitration (unless specified at the time of the agreement), Minor League, or split contracts are not fully guaranteed their salaries.
Players on arbitration contracts who are cut on or before the 16th day of Spring Training are owed 30 days’ termination pay (based on the prorated version of his agreed-upon arbitration salary). A player cut between the 16th day and the end of Spring Training is owed 45 days’ termination pay (based on the prorated version of his agreed-upon arbitration salary). The arbitration salary becomes guaranteed if the player is on the -man roster when the season begins.
This time last year, the Nationals decided to release Sammy Solís given the above rule.
Before the non-tender deadline, they settled on an $850,000 contract to avoid arbitration, but only ended up owing the left-hander $142,000 because of the early spring release.
So, could the Nats look to release anyone before this weekend’s deadline?
Well, based on their activity earlier this offseason, the two possible candidates for release are utility infielder Wilmer Difo and right-handed reliever Hunter Strickland.
Much like Solís, both were potential non-tender candidate too and both settled on a salary for 2020 right before the non-tender deadline earlier in December, likely meaning it was at least a consideration that one or both of them could’ve been non-tendered.
At that deadline, Difo ended up signing for $1 million while Strickland signed for $1.6 million.
That would mean they could be released by the deadline on Sunday and only be owed roughly $166,000 and $266,000 respectively.
Though neither is particularly likely to get released tomorrow, if one is to be release, then Difo would seem to be the most logical bet.
Despite breaking camp with the big league club last year as the backup infielder, Difo didn’t impress when he was forced to fill in for Trea Turner.
In his 39 games before demotion, he slashed a measly .231/.301/.298 with a pair of home runs, only good enough for a 52 wRC+.
Once Turner returned from the Injured List, Difo was optioned down to Triple-A Fresno and didn’t return until rosters expanded in September, playing just three more games in the big leagues.
Now that Difo is out of minor league options this season, if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he’ll need to be exposed to waivers where any other team can claim him for nothing.
As things stand, he’s on the outside looking in. The third base job is still Carter Kieboom’s to lose, according to Nats’ manager Dave Martinez, and if Kieboom cracks the Opening Day roster, it will be tough to find room for Difo without jettisoning a veteran.
So with that uphill battle in mind, the Nationals could opt to just release Difo on Sunday and save themselves some money instead of waiting until their final roster decisions.
However, given the saving compared to waiting until the end of Spring Training would only be less than $100,000 and the Nats aren’t balancing up against the luxury tax threshold like they were this time last year, it’s probably best to keep Difo around as injury insurance.
Meanwhile, Strickland is in a similar spot where he is also out of options, so he can’t be sent down to the minor leagues without clearing waivers, and is also a candidate for release.
The former San Francisco Giant has had an interesting time with the Nationals so far. He started out strong, allowing just one run in his first 10 appearances with the team, but fell off the rails as he posted a 9.00 ERA in his next 14 outings followed by an awful NLDS.
For a man battling for one of the last bullpen spots this spring, Strickland isn’t exactly off to a great start, allowing three runs on four hits and a walk in three innings of work.
But Spring Training stats are notoriously misleading, so there’s probably not too much to read into that.
If the Nationals really are considering releasing Strickland before more guaranteed money kicks in, it will be because of his late-season swoon in 2019.
In reality, there probably isn’t a huge chance of Strickland being released by Sunday.
After the Nats gave up promising relief prospect Aaron Fletcher for him, it makes sense to give him every chance to earn his spot in the Opening Day bullpen rather than cut bait early.
For the record, the team’s other arbitration contract players are Turner, Michael A. Taylor, Joe Ross, and Roenis Elías, so, in theory, any of them could also be released this weekend for just one sixth of their contract.
However, with all of them near-locks to the make the team, they’re all but safe on this front.
Though it’s unlikely that the Nationals actually release anyone tomorrow, after they did so with Solís last year, it might be something to keep half an eye on, just in case.
Correction: The deadline for arbitration players to be released for one-sixth of their salary is actually Sunday, not Saturday as this article previously mentioned. h/t to Jesse Dougherty of The Washington Post for helping clear up the ambiguity of the MLB.com website.