PHILADELPHIA - Needing to clear a roster spot for Jeremy Guthrie before tonight’s game, the Nationals optioned Michael A. Taylor to Triple-A Syracuse, electing to keep an extra infielder on their bench instead of an outfielder.
The decision essentially boiled down to demoting either Taylor or Wilmer Difo, who both made the opening day roster when the Nationals decided to carry a six-man bench. Neither player, however, has appeared in any of the team’s first four games.
Manager Dusty Baker said the need for Taylor to get regular playing time outweighed the need to keep another backup outfielder in the majors.
“That was a tough decision, because Michael is probably as talented, in the top three, of anybody on the field including their team,” Baker said. “It’s just a matter of him getting some at-bats. We had to choose.”
Baker also pointed out that by keeping Difo on the roster, fellow backup infielder Stephen Drew is freed up to be used more without fear of losing a potential replacement should somebody else get hurt during a game.
“We use our bench a lot, our pinch-hitting side, and our only other infielder was Stephen Drew,” Baker said. “So now I can use Stephen and save Difo, or I can use Difo to pinch-run and we still have Stephen to double-switch or put in the game. We were just a little bit more ready with infielders than outfielders. But Michael, I told him just go down and play. Tear it up. And he’ll be back, too.”
With Taylor heading to Syracuse, the Nationals have only one backup outfielder in Chris Heisey, though first baseman Adam Lind can play left field and Difo spent time this spring working in center field in case he’s needed there in an emergency.
“It’s hard to cover every spot,” Baker said. “There aren’t many teams that can cover every spot on the field. In a perfect world, you want to cover yourself in the middle infield and also in center field. We’d like to have that person that’s a double center fielder. But if something happens, Michael’s only a phone call away.”
Guthrie is assuming the No. 5 starter’s spot in the Nationals rotation, but the 38-year-old is not expected to continue in that role long-term. The team doesn’t need a fifth starter again until April 22, so if Guthrie stays in the big leagues he would likely serve as a long reliever, with Joe Ross getting called up from Triple-A to join the rotation.
Ross, who was optioned to Syracuse last week, was not eligible to be recalled yet because he hadn’t spent 10 days in the minors. He debuted for the Chiefs this afternoon and lasted only 2 2/3 innings, giving up four runs (three earned) on six hits and three walks, throwing 75 pitches.
Baker said the organization wants Ross to work on maintaining a consistent arm slot while he’s in the minors. He’ll also be on a stricter pitch limit there, in an attempt to keep him fresher for the second half of the season in Washington.
“Down there, you can sort of control his pitch count, his innings count,” the manager said. “I know they want to win. But up here, he isn’t our primary concern. Joe will be back. He couldn’t come back this soon, because he hadn’t been out 10 days. But we’re not really worried about Joe. He’ll be back.”
Baker insisted the club isn’t looking at Ross and Guthrie competing for the fifth starter’s job.
“I don’t see it as an audition,” he said. “I see it as him trying to help us win. Like I said, Joe will be back. It’s not a competition, so much between Joe and Guthrie, because Joe’s future is so bright.”