VIERA, Fla. - The deeper we get into spring training, the more that we’ll talk about roster construction scenarios with new Nationals manager Matt Williams. You don’t want to spring too much on the guy right out of the gate, especially when he’s still learning about his players and seeing many of them for the first time with his own eyes.
But Williams did get a couple of questions today about the battle for spots in the bullpen, and while he didn’t reveal much information, the Nats skipper did give us a bit of a glimpse into how he would ideally like things to break down.
It’s clear from surveying the roster and watching bullpen sessions the last two days that the Nats have lots of pitching depth this spring. Some teams fill out their spring training roster with loads of veterans who have no shot of cracking the roster out of camp. The Nats, on the other hand, have plenty of guys who have at least a slim chance of breaking camp with the team should they pitch well.
Williams declined to indicate how many spots in the bullpen are up for grabs this spring or who has a guaranteed job waiting for them, but he does seem pleased with the competition that lies ahead for his pitchers.
“We think about guys that have certainly shown they can handle it in the past. Without naming names, we can understand who those guys are,” Williams said. “But it’s about who throws well and how we do the roster at the end of spring training and who’s going to be best for us. All those things come into play. At this point, that’s an unknown. But depth is good. We have some lightning arms in our pitching staff. That’s a good thing.”
Former manager Nats Davey Johnson liked having two left-handed relievers in his bullpen. He also liked having two long relievers out in the ‘pen, one right-handed and one southpaw. Williams said that while having two left-handers as relief options would be “ideal,” the Nats will make their bullpen decisions based on what’s best for the club.
And what about the idea of having two long relievers?
“I think what we have are starting pitchers that can go deep in games,” Williams said. “That being said, you need a long guy. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a righty or a lefty or both. I think it matters how we construct our staff and how we go about our business. We’ll see how it goes. We need a long guy, certainly somebody that can throw multiple innings if we get in a jam. He doesn’t have to be right-handed. He doesn’t have to be left-handed. We don’t need two of them. Because we have starters that can go deep into the game.”
Williams said that the primary thing that he wants to see from his players this spring is a high commitment level. The talent is there, Williams believes, but “we’re going to (have to) fully commit if we’re going to win. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for their enthusiasm, their attention to detail.”
He saw some of that attention to detail today when watching Stephen Strasburg’s mound work.
“I saw today Stephen Strasburg in his first bullpen session varying his slide step and working on his looks to home plate. That’s the attention to detail we’re looking for,” Williams said. “He’s concerned about it and he wants to improve on it. His first bullpen session, he’s working on it. I think that’s a really good thing.”
Strasburg has talked in the past about wanting to put himself in a position to work deeper into games. He wants to be viewed as a workhorse, someone who can handle a heavy workload and put the team on his back late in games and when contests are tight. Will the Nats allow Strasburg to be that guy who works into the seventh, eighth and ninth innings on a regular basis this season?
“I think that’s going to depend on him,” Williams said. “We would certainly love it. I think he has the ability to do that. On any given start, depending on how many pitches he threw his last start or what kind of stressful innings he’s got within that start, those determinations will be made. It’s unfair to him to do it at this point. He wants to get deeper into ballgames. He’ll be able to do that in different ways.
“Not necessarily taking his pitch count from 100 to 120 or 130. If he can hold base runners well or he can get early outs, then he can allow himself to do that within the same pitch count that he’s had. That’s his objective. That’s what he’s trying to do.”
Several more position players reported to camp today, ahead of Tuesday’s deadline for them to report. That group included third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, outfielder Scott Hairston, second baseman Anthony Rendon and corner infielder Matt Skole.
Skole’s 2013 season was lost due to Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing left elbow, but he got some at-bats late last year at the Arizona Fall League and is now back healthy as he enters spring. The burly 24-year-old has been known to put on quite a display in batting practice sessions, and he crushed a ball so far over the fence at Space Coast Stadium during BP today that it sounded like it hit a car out in the player parking lot.
“I like Skoley. He had a tough break last year,” Williams said. “Saw him a little bit in the fall league, he had just come back. Those were his first at-bats. So I anticipate he will look for his timing early this spring, because he really hasn’t played in a year. So it’s gonna be tough for him early. But Rick Schu is working with him now every day. We’ll get his timing back, try to get him a lot of at-bats in spring and get his feet back under him. It’s difficult when you lose that much time. But he’ll be fine. He drives the ball the other way well, he can play both corner positions. So I think he’s got a bright future.”
Williams likes Skole’s skill set enough to compare him to one of the great home run hitters in recent years - Jim Thome. Williams said that Skole’s power, specifically his ability to take the ball to the opposite field with power, reminds him of Thome. Not a bad guy to be compared to.
“Skoley does that good,” Williams said. “And he takes the ahead-in-the-count fastball, breaking ball and drives it to his pull side. But he stays on the ball well.”