We’re into the final stretch. Opening Day for the Washington Nationals is less than a week away, and while it may not be a season where they are overly competitive, this offseason more than most reminded a lot of people that this is much better than nothing at all.
Anyway, now the team is narrowing its roster down for the final cut ahead of Thursday, we take a look at who will likely be on the roster for the first game of the year against the New York Mets.
A couple of points to mention before we get started. MLB and the MLBPA agreed that to start the season, teams will be allowed a 28-man roster through May 1st, due to the shortened Spring Training. So, this prediction is for that 28-man roster, not the 26-man roster, with a limit of 13 pitchers, that it will shrink down to on May 2nd.
Second, the Nationals’ 40-man roster is currently full, so if they want to add any of the players who are listed as non-roster invitees (NRI), they will need to clear space on the 40-man roster for these players, though we won’t bother with working out those moves here.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at who might make up the 28-man Opening Day roster...
Catchers (2): Keibert Ruiz, Riley Adams
Still in camp: Tres Barrera, Chris Herrmann (NRI)
Just as he finished last season, Keibert Ruiz figures to be the main man putting down the fingers behind home plate for the Nationals as someone that they hope will be a cornerstone of the franchise’s next competitive roster.
The only question mark behind the plate is whether the Nats want Riley Adams to get regular playing time in Triple-A — in which case, Tres Barrera, who has proven to be capable in the majors, would replace him — or are happy for him to back up Ruiz, along with the occasional pinch-hit at-bat, and potentially some time at first base down the line.
Infielders (6): Josh Bell, César Hernández, Alcides Escobar, Ehire Adrianza, Maikel Franco (NRI), Dee Strange-Gordon (NRI)
Still in camp: None
The Nationals unofficially revealed what their Opening Day infield would look like when they optioned Luis García to Triple-A at the start of this week.
With no Ryan Zimmerman this season, Josh Bell now figures to start pretty much every game at first base. César Hernández will be the team’s leadoff hitter and near-everyday second baseman. Alcides Escobar will likely take most of the reps at shortstop but could be spelled from time to time. And with Carter Kieboom on the 60-day Injured List to start the year, Maikel Franco is poised to be the starting third baseman to open the season.
On the bench, Ehire Adrianza* was signed to a one-year major league deal to be a versatile utility man who can play most positions on the dirt and in the outfield and will be ready to fill in when any of the starters need a day of their feet.
The final infielder might be a bit of a surprise, but Dee Strange-Gordon has caught the eye of manager Dave Martinez this spring and filled in for Victor Robles in center field when the Nationals trotted out their pseudo-Opening Day lineup while Robles was working on his swing on the backfields. With the versatility to fill in up the middle on the infield as well as center field and corner outfield, he looks in pole position to make the roster.
[ed. note - “ *= Ehire Adrianza suffered a left quad injury last night, after this story was submitted. Waiting on news on the extent of the issue.”]
Outfielders (4): Juan Soto, Lane Thomas, Victor Robles, Andrew Stevenson
Still in camp: Yadiel Hernández, Gerardo Parra (NRI)
In probably our boldest prediction of this piece, Juan Soto makes the Opening Day roster.
Aside from that lock, Lane Thomas appears to have secured his place on the roster too, though it’s not entirely certain where he’ll figure to play most of the time just yet. That likely depends on whether Victor Robles makes the roster. If he does, it will likely be Robles in center and Thomas in left field. If not, then Thomas projects as the everyday center fielder.
The rest of the outfield spots essentially become a choice of two out of four players.
Despite a poor spring, Martinez seemed to hint that Robles will make the Opening Day roster and have a chance to prove himself again. For the last spot, this might come down to pure logistics as Andrew Stevenson is out of options, so while the Nationals may prefer to keep Yadiel Hernández for his bat, they likely won’t want to risk losing Stevenson via DFA just yet.
Designated Hitter (1): Nelson Cruz
Still in camp: None
Boo, hiss, Designated Hitter. The universal DH has finally made its way to the National League on a permanent basis. So, let’s keep this short and simple, given that the Nats signed a full-time DH in Nelson Cruz this offseason, and he figures to play there 95% of the time.
Rotation (5): Patrick Corbin, Josiah Gray, Erick Fedde, Josh Rogers, Aníbal Sánchez (NRI)
Projected Injured List: Stephen Strasburg
Still in camp: Joan Adon, Cade Cavalli (NRI), Aaron Sanchez (NRI)
Remember when the Nationals’ rotation almost filled itself out aside from a fifth starter battle? Those were halcyon days, and a long way from where the rotation is these days.
With Stephen Strasburg looking certain to hang back in West Palm Beach to make sure he has a full Spring Training build-up to the season, he’ll start on the Injured List, leaving this group even more short-handed.
Patrick Corbin, one of the worst pitchers in MLB last year, is seemingly set to take the ball on Opening Day, and Josiah Gray will follow him on Friday, as the two locks in the rotation.
Despite a poor second half of the season in 2021, Erick Fedde* figures to have secured his place on the Opening Day roster for now given the lack of any other big league-ready arms. That said, he’ll need to impress early on, or they may replace him with a younger arm.
[ed. note - “ *= Fedde was scratched from his start last night after the story was submitted and is headed for an MRI for tightness in his right side.”]
Josh Rogers impressed down the stretch last season to the tune of a 3.28 ERA and, much like Fedde, appears set to start the year in the rotation thanks to a dearth of other options.
The final spot then likely comes down to Aníbal Sánchez and Cade Cavalli, the two pitchers who combined to give up 21 runs in Wednesday’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Less than ideal.
If anything though, that game may have proved to the Nationals that there is still some fine-tuning for Cavalli to do in the minor leagues initially before he’s ready for the bigs. Cavalli’s time will come, perhaps in short order if others falter in the early months, just not quite yet.
Bullpen (10): Steve Cishek, Kyle Finnegan, Tanner Rainey, Sean Doolittle, Austin Voth, Paolo Espino, Mason Thompson, Sam Clay, Andres Machado, Patrick Murphy
Projected Injured List: Will Harris
Still in camp: Hunter Harvey, Tyler Clippard (NRI), Jace Fry (NRI), Jordan Weems (NRI), Carl Edwards Jr. (NRI), Víctor Arano (NRI)
Well, this is a bit of a mess, isn’t it? Not that the Nationals frequently sport a strong-looking bullpen going into the season, but there’s plenty of uncertainty in this group at the moment.
With the expanded rosters allowing for 28 players, and no restrictions on the number of pitchers among those 28, the bullpen figures to gain a couple more arms for the first month.
Signed this offseason, Steve Cishek and Sean Doolittle are likely to be factors at the end of games for the Nationals. Kyle Finnegan and Tanner Rainey are the two main holdovers from last season and figure to also be in the mix for late-inning appearances.
Paolo Espino was the secret weapon for the Nationals last year and seems a lock to make the team again, it’s just a matter of whether he slides into the rotation or as a long reliever.
Sorting out the rest of the bullpen is a bit tougher beyond those five relievers.
After the Nats optioned Francisco Pérez to Triple-A Thursday, Sam Clay makes sense as the second lefty in the bullpen, especially as Jace Fry was late to camp and is still getting his arm ready.
Mason Thompson and Andres Machado both showed flashes of being productive major league relievers last season with 4.15 and 3.53 ERAs respectively, and both earned the skipper’s trust towards the end of the season to handle late innings, which works in their favor.
To round out the bullpen, we have Austin Voth and Patrick Murphy. Despite flashing promising stuff on the mound, they both finished with an ERA north of 5.00 for Washington. Perhaps most notably though, both players are out of options, so if they don’t make the Opening Day roster, they would need to be passed through waivers to be sent down to the minors.
If either had an option remaining, they likely would start the season in the minors in lieu of other pitchers who have pitched well this spring, but will the Nats risk passing them through waivers? They usually try to avoid doing so, but it wouldn’t be a shock if they did.
If there’s a name on the outside looking in on our prediction who could potentially supplant someone like Murphy, then look no further than Víctor Arano, who has a strong 2.65 ERA in the majors in his career across three seasons, and in three Spring Training appearances this year, he has struck out six batters in 2.2 scoreless innings of work for the Nationals.
One final note, as mentioned above, this prediction was done on the night that Erick Fedde and Ehire Adrianza suffered injuries, and we’ve yet to hear any further developments on the severity of them. Obviously, if they’re going to miss time, that would affect the above prediction.