Now that the calendar has ticked over to July, the Washington Nationals and Major League Baseball are going to at least attempt to make a comeback this month, just under four months after Spring Training was shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Even though people in and around baseball in America will be trying to return to normality, for 2020 at least, it’s going to be something of a “new normal” for those in the game.
The next few weeks, as everyone adjusts to the new protocols, will be a huge test. Positive tests are going to come in, protocols will have to be followed, and the reality of the situation is going to set in. Let’s not forget that it’s a challenge in itself to get to the season.
But hopefully, if everything goes as planned and Major League baseball will be played in a little over two weeks.
Back in March, in a time when it looked like the Nats would have a chance to truly defend their crown and raise a banner at Nationals Park, I made an initial 26-man roster projection.
With Nationals players now having reported to Spring Training 2.0, or Summer Camp, or whatever else you want to call it; it’s time to take another whirl at a projection.
The difference this time is that we’ll be projecting 30 roster spots, not 26 like before...
Catchers: Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Raudy Read
In the first projection, this was fairly routine. It was easy to simply select the World Series champion battery of Gomes and Suzuki. But with an extra roster spot, there is a question mark over this position: do the Nats now carry two or three catchers?
Manager Dave Martinez has sometimes mentioned how he has considered carrying three backstops before, giving him the flexibility to use someone like Suzuki, who came up clutch numerous times for the Nats last season, as a pinch hitter more often.
So, if we assume that with the expanded roster and with the catchers still working their way back to game readiness, Read would appear to have a strong chance to make the team.
After Welington Castillo opted out of the 2020 season on Friday, Read would seem to be third on the depth chart. He could provide Gomes and Suzuki with breathers late in games early in the shortened season before being optioned back to the 60-man player pool.
Infielders: Eric Thames, Howie Kendrick, Starlin Castro, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Trea Turner, Carter Kieboom, Wilmer Difo
A position group that looked pretty set except at third base coming into Spring Training now has some intrigue when it comes to who will make the cut this July.
That intrigue is in part because of the recent decision by Ryan Zimmerman to opt-out of the 2020 season. With a newborn just entering the world and his mother part of the high-risk group for coronavirus, the face of the franchise’s decision should not be a shock to anyone.
With or without Zimmerman, first base will still be a relative strength of this team.
The newly-acquired Thames should mash on the strong side of a platoon with Howie Kendrick, who now will see plenty of time at first as well as DH this season, his partner.
The next four names should be fairly self-explanatory. Castro, Turner, and Kieboom should fill out the rest of the infield, while Cabrera will be a valuable utility option used in a few spots.
The additional spot on the infield now appears to be Difo’s to lose heading into July.
As things stood in March, the Nats were heading into the year with Kieboom as the backup shortstop should anything happen to Turner. As we saw last year defensively, that’s far from an ideal situation, so hopefully, Difo would provide a better glove to fall back on at short.
Outfielders: Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Adam Eaton, Michael A. Taylor, Emilio Bonifácio
As mentioned in the last roster projection in March, the starting outfield of Soto, Robles, Eaton is by the far most locked-in of any starting group in this entire projection.
Choosing a backup outfielder or two is the tricky part here.
Already on the 40-man roster, the Nationals have Taylor and Andrew Stevenson who would seem to be pretty close in how the team views them.
The difference is that the former is now out of minor league options while the latter still has one remaining.
While Stevenson still has a case to be on the initial 30-man roster with Taylor, that minor league option may give the chance to add a utility player they love having around in Bonifácio.
The veteran impressed the coaching staff with his versatility and clubhouse presence as a non-roster invitee in March, with the team imagining him filling a Gerardo Parra-type role.
As a player that was likely on the outside looking in while the 2020 season looked to be on track as normal, the unusual season that faces everyone may give Bonifácio a shot to impress in the early going to see if he can stick around for the full 60-game season.
Starting Pitchers: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sánchez, Austin Voth
Barring injury, expect the Nationals to write those first four names down in ink to start the season. The core four of their World Series championship last season will be raring to go again.
The fifth spot in the rotation, however, is anything but a certainty this year.
Last Monday, Joe Ross also opted out of the 2020 season along with Castillo and Zimmerman.
The right-hander was slated to slot into the rotation after regaining some of his pre-Tommy John form last year.
Without Ross, some have suggested the Nationals should explore using either a four-man in the shorter season.
While it has its merits, one of the reasons the Nats’ horses are so good and consistent is they’re all glued to their routines, pitching every fifth day. Putting them in a four-man rotation could well throw them off and have the complete opposite effect.
Therefore, with a spot open, the primary candidates will be Voth and Erick Fedde.
A bit like the competition for the backup outfielder role, minor league options has a say in this decision. Voth is now out of options, meanwhile, Fedde still has an option remaining.
That’s not to say that Voth wouldn’t be the favorite to be the fifth starter anyway. In nine games last season, eight of which were starts, the righty pitched to an impressive 3.30 ERA with 44 strikeouts to just 13 walks, while Fedde only managed a 4.50 ERA and 41 Ks to 32 BBs.
It will be an intriguing battle that should become clearer as the new Opening Day draws closer.
Relief Pitchers: Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, Will Harris, Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, Roenis Elías, Erick Fedde, Javy Guerra, Ryne Harper
While Castillo, Zimmerman, and Ross have officially opted out of the 2020 season, it remains to be seen whether Doolittle, the team’s closer, will follow suit and sit out this campaign too.
For now, it looks like the left-hander will take part in the season. He should join holdovers Hudson, Rainey, Suero, and Elías, whose spots in the bullpen aren’t in a huge amount of doubt.
New acquisition Harris should slide into a high leverage role in the bullpen. Assuming Doolittle does opt in the season, that brings us up to six spots filled in the relief corps so far.
The other three spots could end up being a free-for-all between some of last season’s bit-part relievers, some new acquisitions, and some of the non-roster invitees.
One thing the Nationals will need to remember is that, because of the shortened preseason and the actual games they will play before Opening Day will be limited, they’re going to need plenty of length out of the bullpen to cope with the shorter starts by the rotation.
Therefore, it would make sense to carry Fedde as a sixth starter who can come in and deliver multiple innings for starters that only make it to the third or fourth inning.
This also gives the Nats an opportunity to bring Guerra back, who was an underrated part of the World Series winning group.
Fourteen of Guerra’s 40 appearances out of the bullpen for the Nationals in 2019 were for more than one inning.
Again, if there are starters that aren’t going to go deep into games, especially early on in the season, then the versatile right-handed reliever will make an excellent safety net.
The last spot really is a toss-up and could depend on who impresses the most in the next two and a bit weeks.
Right now, Harper may have the edge because of how well he performed with the Twins last season, posting a 3.81 and 3.66 FIP ERA in 61 appearances out of the bullpen.
That said, given that Harper still has minor league options remaining there’s a cavalcade of other relievers who could easily supplant him.
Kyle Finnegan, James Bourque, and Austen Williams are all young arms with good relief track records in the minor leagues.
With a shorter season, the Nats may have fewer concerns with using Aaron Barrett. Or they could add someone like Kevin Quackenbush or Fernando Abad to the 40-man roster as a veteran presence in the bullpen.