The Nationals enjoyed a particularly healthy spring, enough to leave manager Dusty Baker as encouraged as he’s ever going to be heading into a season. But not healthy enough to field their full starting lineup on opening day.
Anthony Rendon, who fouled a ball off his left calf one week ago in Florida, was held out of today’s season opener against the Marlins.
Baker described this more as a precautionary move than anything, not wanting to take any chances the first week of April.
“He’s doing better. He’s doing a lot better,” Baker said. “He could’ve played if I wanted to push him. But I decided not to, since we’re off tomorrow. He could be available to pinch-hit or something late in the game. But it was my decision. He wanted to go. And after much deliberation and thought in my office, I decided it would be best if he didn’t.”
Rendon hasn’t played in a game since fouling the pitch off his leg last Monday in a Grapefruit League game against the Mets. The Nationals throughout have portrayed this as a minor ailment and not cause for concern, though it should be noted the club never thought Rendon was seriously hurt two springs ago when he dove for a ball in an early spring training game. He wound up spraining a ligament in his knee and didn’t make his season debut until June 4.
Rendon has been able to take batting practice and take part in defensive drills with his teammates the last few days, and he joined everyone on the field pregame for introductions and to be honored as the 2016 National League Comeback Player of the Year.
With Rendon sidelined, Baker turned to Stephen Drew as his opening day third baseman. The veteran infielder is no stranger to starting a season opener with other clubs over the years, but this is only his 10th career start at third base in a major league game (eight of the previous nine came last season).
With Drew starting, the Nationals had Wilmer Difo available as their backup infielder, the added benefit of the club keeping an extra bench player over a fifth starting pitcher on the opening day roster. Baker insisted Rendon’s condition didn’t play a role in keeping both Difo and Michael A. Taylor on their bench over fifth starter Joe Ross or long reliever Jeremy Guthrie, but it is proving beneficial.
“We just thought we’d rather have ... an extra player that could contribute, one being a switch-hitter (Difo), one being a left-handed hitter (Drew),” Baker said. “They can all play all three infield positions. Unlike the Marlins; they decided to go with 13 pitchers and four bench guys. It’s just a matter of what you thought you needed. And we thought we needed an extra player.”
The Nationals roster won’t stay this way for long, though. The team will need a fifth starter this weekend in Philadelphia, and (barring an injury) it can’t be Ross.
Major League Baseball rules require a player who is optioned to the minors to remain there at least 10 days before being recalled to the big leagues, unless he is replacing a teammate who needs to go on the disabled list. Ross’ transaction was official Sunday, so he won’t be eligible to rejoin the Nationals until April 12 at the earliest, a club official confirmed.
Guthrie, however, would be eligible to be promoted from Triple-A Syracuse because he has been on a minor league contract since signing over the winter and thus is not subject to the optioning rule. Thus, the Nats could promote Guthrie sometime this weekend and send either Taylor or Difo down to clear a spot.
The team won’t need a fifth starter again until April 22, so the team could either drop Guthrie and recall the extra position player or keep Guthrie in their bullpen and either save him for that next start or promote Ross at that point.