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Spring Training Has Arrived For The Washington Nationals

Wednesday was a big day for teams across Major League Baseball, including the Washington Nationals, as pitchers and catchers reported to camps in Florida and Arizona, and Spring Training rosters were revealed.

Many of the names the Nationals have included and omitted from their spring roster raise some eyebrows – as does some devastating news about star pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

Refresher on the 40-Man Roster

Back in December, the MLB conducted the Rule 5 draft, which ultimately meant two things: a handful of minor leagues were added to the big league roster, and the Nationals drafted a player (right-handed pitcher Thad Ward) from another organization.

All of those players, including Ward, will automatically be invited to big league Spring Training. Unless they’re recovering from a significant injury, all 40 of those players should be reporting to West Palm Beach, FL shortly – if they haven’t already.

From that bunch, you’ll recognize most of the names. Every significant member of last year’s bullpen is returning this season, as are all starters not named Erick Fedde (non-tendered and under contract in Korea), Joe Ross (signed with the Giants) and Anibal Sanchez (an unsigned free agent).

Some pitching names you’re likely less familiar with are former/current top prospects MacKenzie Gore (acquired from the Padres last season) and Cade Cavalli, high-upside minor league relievers Matt Cronin and Jose A. Ferrer, the aforementioned Thad Ward, and free agent signee Trevor Williams – who has experience as a reliever, but is expected to start in Washington.

There’s nothing new at catcher, although September call-up Israel Pineda has overtaken Tres Barrera (who signed with the Cardinals) as the No. 3 catcher – and might compete with Riley Adams for the backup job behind Keibert Ruiz.

Joey Meneses and Dominic Smith (a signee from the Mets) will split most of the reps between first base and designated hitter – perhaps along with Jeimer Candelario, formerly of the Tigers. Luis Garcia and C.J. Abrams will be fixtures at second base and shortstop, respectively, and Candelario has the inside track to the third base job. Ildemaro Vargas, Carter Kieboom (returning from Tommy John surgery) and rising prospect Jake Alu will compete for likely two available backup spots. Former highly regarded prospect Jeter Downs (Red Sox) was added off the waiver wire, but he seems destined to start the season in the minors – likely Triple-A Rochester.

Victor Robles and Lane Thomas’ names are virtually written in Sharpie in center field and right field, respectively. Beyond that, there’s some wiggle room. The Nationals signed Corey Dickerson from the Cardinals to a one-year deal, and given his track record, he seems to be the leading candidate to start in left field – although he’s been a statistically poor hitter against left-handed pitching in recent years. Behind him, a pair of young right-handers in Alex Call and Stone Garrett (signed from the Diamondbacks) will compete for what might be one backup outfield spot. The Nationals also added 21-year-old Jeremy De La Rosa to their 40-man, but he’ll open the season in either High-A Wilmington or Double-A Harrisburg.

Non-Roster Invitees

It’s a long list, but here’s the skinny of it. Some familiar faces are back including pitchers Sean Doolittle, Andres Machado, Evan Lee, Jackson Tetreault, Alberto Baldonado, Francisco Perez and Tommy Romero; infielders Matt Adams and Lucius Fox; and outfielder Yadiel Hernandez.

The most notable prospects from within the organization that you should familiarize yourself with are pitchers Zach Brzykcy and Gerardo Carrillo (part of the Scherzer/Turner trade return), catcher Drew Millas, and outfielders Yasel Antuna and Donovan Casey (the other half of the Carrillo package).

Veteran arms Chad Kuhl (a starter), Alex Colome and Wily Peralta – along with Doolittle and perhaps Machado – seem to be the most likely pitchers with big league experience to break camp in the majors. Second baseman/utilityman Michael Chavis (most recently with the Pirates) could return some value in a reserve role at multiple positions, and centerfielder Derek Hill’s defense could be valuable enough to get him to Washington.

My Way-Too-Early Guesses

Here goes nothing! I’ll assume health as is known now – which means omitting Strasburg and Tanner Rainey.

Of note, by virtue of Ward being a Rule 5 addition, he must be retained on the active roster or Injured List all season, or otherwise be returned to the Red Sox.

Around this time, I’ll often project a starting lineup, one through nine. This year, I’d rather wait. There’s a lot in flux, from new additions to incumbents, all of whom have spotty track records and uncertain preferred roles in the batting order.

Names I Wish We Were Seeing

I’ll preface this by saying they might – and likely will – appear in West Palm Beach at some point. Teams are often shorthanded on days when they have split-squad games (two games being played simultaneously) or after roster cuts have been made.

With that said, there are some tantalizing prospects who have been omitted from the Spring Training roster. The cream of the crop is outfielder James Wood, who’s viewed as a nearly undisputed top 30 prospect in the league, and many experts see as one of the highest-potential breakout stars at the minor league level this season. He’ll be playing in High-A Wilmington this season, with a promotion or two firmly in the discussion if he succeeds as profoundly as he’s expected to. Still, it’s a big name that fans who tune into spring games – i.e., diehard fans – would love to get a sneak peak at.

Similarly, outfielder Elijah Green (Washington’s No. 5 overall draft pick last year) would’ve drawn plenty of eyes. The same holds true for Double-A outfielder Robert Hassell III (recovering from hamate surgery), Low-A shortstop Brady House (battled a back injury most of last season), and Low-A pitcher Jarlin Susana (who touches and exceeds 100 miles per hour with his fastball). Each of these four youngsters, along with Wood, reside somewhere within Washington’s top eight minor league prospects – and some experts (plus me, in my less-than-expert view) opine that they are the organization’s five most likely future stars who haven’t reached the big leagues.

To that end, consider checking out some minor league prospect rankings from various sites, such as MLB Pipeline. Across the board, every outlet is much more favorable towards the Nationals than they’ve been during the past decade.

There are also some – perhaps lesser-known – Twitter accounts in the Nationals community that do a great job highlighting minor leaguers with statistical analyses, videos, and occasionally interviews. Here are some of my favorites that I often rely on for information:

Just for fun, I’ll throw one of them, who also mentions soon-to-be Low-A outfielder Cristhian Vaquero, a bone now:

Where Is Stephen Strasburg?

According to the big-name beat reporters, led by Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post, the former ace of the staff suffered yet another setback in his return from Thoracic Outlet Surgery (TOS) – the dagger of operations for pitchers. As you likely know, he’s under contract through 2026 at an average annual value of $35 million.

As a result of the setback, he’s staying away from Spring Training to continue the rehabilitation process. At this point, however, it’s reasonable to speculate about whether he’ll ever step onto the mound at the big league level again.

Interestingly enough, Dougherty also reported earlier in the same day that minor league pitching prospect Cole Henry (who underwent TOS last August) is feeling well and optimistic, and has avoided any major obstacles thus far in his recovery.

As unfortunate as it is, given the success rate – or lack thereof – with this surgery, coming away from it batting .500 wouldn’t be the worst outcome for the Nationals. Still, that doesn’t make the sting of losing someone as exceptionally talented as Strasburg hurt any less.

What’s Up Next?

Position players will report to camp next Tuesday. Then, games will start Saturday, February 25 with a 1:05 p.m. tilt against the Cardinals in Jupiter, FL. Four games will be televised – all on MASN:

  • Saturday, March 11 vs. Mets at 7:05 p.m.
  • Saturday, March 18 vs. Marlins at 1:05 p.m.
  • Friday, March 24 vs. Cardinals at 6:05 p.m.
  • Tuesday, March 28 vs. Yankees (Nationals Park) at 12:05 p.m.

That all leads up to the regular season opener against the Braves two days later in Atlanta. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! There’s plenty that has to happen before rosters are finalized and players are ready for the 162-game season. For now, all that exists is speculation and the ramp-up period.

I shouldn’t minimalize this period, though. For a junky like me, there’s beauty in the minutiae.

One Last Thing…

I haven’t publicly commented on it yet, but owner Ted Lerner passed away at the age of 97 earlier this week. Despite the turmoil the Nationals have encountered in recent seasons, including the pursuit of a sale of the franchise that seems to be stuck on quicksand, Mr. Lerner deserves to be remembered fondly. He essentially brought baseball back to the nation’s capital after a 34-year absence, led the Nationals to the second-most wins of any major league team during the 2010s, and helped them bring home a World Series championship in 2019. The hard times the Nationals have fallen upon since should not tarnish his legacy.


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Monday, 20 March 2023

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