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While the COVID-19 situation has been quite complex for the Nationals over the last few days, it would appear some of the questions fans have been asking now have answers.
We’ve known for a while that four players’ rapid/PCR tests returned positive results, with numerous other players ruled to be high-risk close contacts. But now we know specifically who some of the most affected players were.
Per reports, the Nationals expect to be without left-handed pitcher Jon Lester, catcher Alex Avila, infielder Josh Harrison and outfielder Kyle Schwarber when the season begins. It’s also possible that more players will join the list of inactives.
While Sam Clay, Luis Garcia and Yadiel Hernandez will likely remain with the team after being tentatively recalled on Wednesday, catcher Tres Barrera may not. Washington signed Jonathan Lucroy, a two-time All Star (2014 and 2016), to a minor-league contract, and the belief is that he’ll be promoted to the majors upon joining the team.
Lucroy’s case is an interesting one. Any player designated as COVID-19 affected – either due to a positive test or close contact – can be placed on a separate COVID-19 related IL, removing them from the active and 40-man rosters and allowing them to be replaced by a minor-league player. However, unlike last season, the replacement doesn’t have to be placed through waivers when the COVID-19 designee returns and the replacement is taken off the roster.
In other words, Lucroy can be temporarily utilized as a fill-in for Avila, and then returned to the minor leagues and retained by the organization upon Avila’s return. In essence, there is no downside to using a veteran like Lucroy, especially if Barrera isn’t viewed as big-league ready – which appears to be the case.
Lucroy’s role – assuming he earns a promotion and Avila is deactivated – will be dependent upon the availability of Yan Gomes. Lucroy has never caught any of the Nationals’ starting pitchers, though, which would likely limit his usage.
As far as the rest of the roster goes, pitchers who are cleared to play have been able to throw individually at Nationals Park over the last two days, but position players have not been able to perform full workouts – which Mike Rizzo articulated on Sunday is a concern. In fact, MLB will have the authority to allow the team to return to play whenever it’s appropriate to do so, regardless of how much (if any) formal practice time they get.
If Lester is indeed inactive, it will increase the probability of him being delayed or skipped the first time through the rotation. Subsequent complications could come if Lester is inactive for five or more games, though, with Erick Fedde (who threw on Sunday) or Austin Voth likely serving as the temporary No. 5 starter.
Rizzo would like for anyone who might pitch early this week to get some on-field work prior to doing so. Aside from Fedde and Daniel Hudson, it’s currently unknown who else has or will work out this weekend.
The Nationals also have more than 30 players at their Alternate Training Site in Fredericksburg, whom have partaken in simulated and intrasquad games against the Orioles’ affiliate. Some of the players from Fredericksburg will be needed – particularly Clay, Garcia and Hernandez.
UPDATE: The Nationals finally added some clarity to when their season would begin by announcing Monday's game with the Braves will be postponed, but barring any further developments, the Nationals will be starting their season Tuesday at home against the Braves. The Nationals released an official statement Sunday night saying the most recent round of test results of Nationals personnel included no new positives, and that all of the club's eligible personnel will be able to participate in baseball activities at Nationals Park on Monday.