VIERA, Fla. - Let’s assume, for the sake of this discussion, that the Nationals end up going with a seven-man bullpen and a five-man bench come opening day.
Let’s also assume, for the sake of this discussion, that Danny Espinosa has locked up a roster spot as a reserve infielder and that Doug Fister will be stretched out enough to open the season in the Nats’ rotation. (More on that last part in a minute.)
If that all is the case, then what we’re currently looking at, barring any injuries, is three position players competing for the final spot on the bench, and as many as five pitchers competing for the last available slot in the bullpen. We’ve talked plenty about the Tanner Roark/Taylor Jordan battle for the final rotation spot, but let’s discuss these other areas of interest.
First, let’s address the bench. Espinosa, outfielders Nate McLouth and Scott Hairston, and catcher Jose Lobaton sure appear to have roster spots locked up, leaving first baseman Tyler Moore, infielder Jamey Carroll and second baseman/center fielder Jeff Kobernus as the only position players left in camp with a legitimate shot at the final bench role. (Catchers Chris Snyder and Sandy Leon are still in camp but will be boxed out by Lobaton.)
Moore gives the Nats a power right-handed bat off the bench, he can back up Adam LaRoche at first base, and he can play a corner outfield spot, if needed. He seems to fill a need for a backup first baseman, and has gotten big league experience with the Nats the last two seasons. The problems with Moore potentially earning the final bench spot are multiple - he had trouble in a bench role for much of last season, the Nats already have a right-handed power bat off the bench in Hairston (who traditionally smokes left-handed pitching) and if the Nats are serious about having Ryan Zimmerman play first on a day the Nats are facing a tough lefty, when would Moore get his at-bats? Moore also does have an option remaining, meaning he can be sent down to Triple-A Syracuse and called upon later in the season.
Carroll provides a strong clubhouse presence, has 12 years of big league experience, can play three infield positions and has been a great pinch-hitter over his career, posting a .339/.417/.397 line in such situations. He would give manager Matt Williams a contact hitter on the bench, is sure-handed defensively, and if the Nats don’t keep him, Carroll could just choose to retire, meaning the organization loses an asset. But if Espinosa is the backup second baseman and shortstop, do the Nats need a third middle infielder?
Kobernus has maybe the one skill that Williams lacks on the bench at this point - blazing speed. But he has the least big league experience of the three position players I listed here and it would be tough to see him getting much playing time given the composition of the rest of the roster.
None of the three would be a perfect fit on this roster, but all three bring valuable skills to the table.
As for the bullpen, Williams said last night that he doesn’t think that reliever Ryan Mattheus (who made his spring debut yesterday after a month-long absence due to chest inflammation) will have enough time to get the necessary innings in before the regular season begins. If that’s indeed the case, then that leaves left-handers Xavier Cedeno and Michael Gonzalez and right-handers Aaron Barrett, Blake Treinen and Roark in the mix for the final bullpen spot.
Williams has a trustworthy late-inning lefty in Jerry Blevins and he has a potentially versatile multi-inning lefty in Ross Detwiler. But if he wants another southpaw, possibly one who could match-up against a tough left-handed hitter (of which the National League East has quite a few), then Cedeno or Gonzalez could join the group.
Cedeno’s splits against lefties were very impressive last season, while Gonzalez’s numbers in that area dropped off last year. But Gonzalez has experience and the Nats saw how effective he can be in 2012.
Barrett and Treinen, meanwhile, came into camp as longshots to make the team, guys who had earned a spot in big league camp with their play in the minors last season, but were viewed as likely needing a little more seasoning before being major league-ready. But both have really impressed this spring with their mid-to-high 90s fastballs and ability to get ground balls. Barrett (eight scoreless innings this spring, allowing four hits and no walks with seven strikeouts) might have an edge over Treinen (five earned runs in nine innings with three walks and nine strikeouts) at this point, but both have turned heads during camp.
Then there’s Roark, who could end up snagging that final bullpen spot if Jordan ends up as the Nats’ No. 5 starter. Roark has shown that he can work multiple innings or be effective in shorter stints out of the bullpen, and throws lots of strikes. He could be a versatile, nice option for Williams to have in relief.
One thing that could complicate this all a bit is if Fister isn’t able to build up enough arm strength to be ready for his first turn in the regular season rotation. If that’s the case, then both Roark and Jordan could end up getting starts to begin the season, and that means Barrett or Cedeno might have a greater shot at going north with the team.
The bulk of the Nats roster is set. But there are still a few decisions to be made on the last few spots, and they won’t be easy ones for Williams and general manager Mike Rizzo to make.
“We want to go north with our 25 best, and how it pertains to our club,” Williams said yesterday. “Everybody’s got a chance, and they continue to fight. And that’s good. That’s a good thing for them and for us as well. They’re all going to get a lot of opportunity going forward. So yeah, safe to say they all have a chance, yes.”
Here’s today’s quote of the day, written atop the morning schedule sheet: “First-and-third, nobody out, you’re talking about a big inning.”