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Even with as well as June went for the Nationals, adversity was bound to strike them at some point.
It now has. The surprising aspect, however, is how quickly it came.
In addition to a quartet of high-leverage relief pitchers who are already on the Injured List, Trea Turner (finger) and Kyle Schwarber (hamstring) are currently day-to-day, and Jordy Mercer (quadriceps) will be sidelined for a longer period. Although injuries of such magnitude are difficult to withstand, they also raise questions about roster construction – specifically, whether the Nats have the right types of players on their team.
For most of this season, Washington has been carrying 14 pitchers (nine relievers) and 12 position players (four bench bats). That’s one more pitcher and one fewer hitter than most teams keep at a given time.
Although that probably seems negligible, it’s compounded by some other variables. For example, the Nationals also have two players (Josh Bell and Ryan Zimmerman) who can only play one position (first base), and obviously catchers are catchers. That leaves two bench players (Mercer and the fourth outfielder – a rotation of Andrew Stevenson, Yadiel Hernandez and Gerardo Parra) who can provide some degree of versatility, although Josh Harrison can also play in the outfield if needed.
Particularly when you play a team like the Dodgers, who have an abundance of hitters who can play multiple positions, it becomes apparent that the Nationals are very limited in that regard. It’s not the be all, end all when everyone is healthy, but injuries are inevitable. Having a backup plan is extremely important, and the Nationals don’t really have one at most positions.
Additionally, carrying an extra bullpen arm you don’t trust doesn’t provide much value, and that’s what Dave Martinez has been doing for most of the season. Andres Machado was that guy for a while, and Jefry Rodriguez has been very sparingly used. In the three weeks he’s been on the roster, Rodriguez has pitched three times for a total of eight innings, including a stretch of 13 days between appearances from June 12–25.
If all you’re doing is holding a reliever that you don’t want to use and is arguably unqualified to be on the roster, what’s the point? Is it really worthwhile, especially since it adversely affects the bench?
Everything has come to a head in Washington’s last two games. Thursday, with Turner and Mercer unavailable and Luis Garcia, Carter Kieboom, Adrian Sanchez and Jackson Cluff all hurt in the minor league ranks, Martinez was forced to start Starlin Castro at shortstop and Avila – yes, the backup catcher – at second base. Then Friday, they placed Mercer on the IL and promoted middle infielder Humberto Arteaga (on the left in the photo above), naming him the starting shortstop by default.
Then to make matters worse, Schwarber injured his hamstring rounding first base in the second inning Friday. Although no roster move has been made, the popular opinion is that he’ll be forced to go onto the IL and could miss an extended period of time.
Friday, the bullpen also performed horrendously. With a 3-1 lead, the trio of Sam Clay, Austin Voth and Kyle Lobstein gave up nine runs in the seventh inning. A game that was very winnable got out of hand and out of reach in the blink of an eye. It left many fans wondering whether it was time to rush Double-A closer Matt Cronin to the major leagues, especially since he’s proven he can handle high-leverage situations.
The good news for Washington is that Daniel Hudson and Kyle Finnegan each threw bullpen sessions Friday, so the cast of characters in that group won’t be relied upon as heavily going forward. Erick Fedde shouldn’t be sidelined for much longer, either, which maybe is all the more reason to not carry a ninth reliever. If the options are more capable, they won't need the extra man.
The Nationals have also reportedly completed a trade for Alcides Escobar – who was the starting, light-hitting shortstop for the Royals during their deep postseason runs in the mid-2010s – but hasn’t played at the major league level since 2018. It’s not a flashy move, and it’s unclear if he’ll be promoted to the big league roster immediately, but he’ll serve as a much-needed warm body at a minimum. Arteaga isn’t much of a hitter himself, as the 27-year old infielder entered Friday having played 41 career games at the major league level with a 31 OPS+ (100 is league average), and he had been batting .227 with no significant power in Rochester this year.
As for Schwarber, expect Yadiel Hernandez – who has seven hits in his last 18 at bats in Triple-A Rochester, including two home runs – to be promoted to replace him. Additionally, Stevenson is scheduled to begin a short rehab assignment in Rochester on Sunday. The injury to Schwarber isn’t great, but at least there’s some semblance of depth behind him.
Washington’s roster construction was already strange. But now that the pitching staff is getting closer to full strength while the position player side is weakening, it’s time to get rid of the ninth reliever.