WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - We are, believe it or not, only two weeks away from opening day. Yes, a mere 14 days from now Max Scherzer will be taking the mound at Nationals Park to face Jacob deGrom and the Mets in the opener not only of a potentially dramatic season but of a potentially dramatic first two weeks to the season.
The Nationals play their first 11 games against the Mets and Phillies, two division rivals who made big moves this winter and spring to try to improve, one of those moves of course the signing of Bryce Harper to the largest contract in American professional sports history.
So we are legitimately getting down to the wire here in Florida. Two rounds of cuts have already taken place, and the final roster is starting to take shape. Which makes this an opportune time to take a stab at predicting said opening day roster.
Most of the spots were decided long ago, before anyone even reported for spring training. But there are a few pertinent questions still to be resolved. Let’s run through this position-by-position ...
This one’s easy. Provided everyone stays healthy over the next two weeks, Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki will be on the opening day roster. Gomes may get a few more starts than Suzuki, but this will be a shared job between the two veterans. The Nationals believe this will be of significant benefit to everyone.
Who would be on-call in the minors in case something goes wrong? That job likely goes to Spencer Kieboom, who seems to have established himself as the No. 3 catcher in the organization. Raudy Read was already optioned to Triple-A Fresno, and he’ll be another option in the minors. The biggest question involves Pedro Severino, who is out of options and must clear waivers if the Nationals want to keep him. It’s quite possible his days with the organization are running out.
The starting infield is set in stone: Ryan Zimmerman, Brian Dozier, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon. Nothing’s going to change there, unless there’s an injury. And we know Matt Adams makes the club as the backup first baseman and top left-handed bat off the bench. We also know Wilmer Difo is a virtual lock to make it as the backup middle infielder.
The questions come after that. If Howie Kendrick makes it back from his hamstring strain in time, obviously he’s on the team and fills a utility role as both a second baseman, first baseman and left fielder. But time’s running out for Kendrick to make it back in time, and there seems little reason for the Nats to rush him.
So who makes the club if Kendrick doesn’t? Well, four of the six players cut Wednesday were infielders (Brandon Snyder, Matt Reynolds, Jacob Wilson and Luis Garcia) so that trimmed the list by a considerable amount. Adrián Sanchez seems like the frontrunner here, based both on his experience, his right-handed bat and the fact the Nationals have been having him get some time in the outfield and at first base in recent days.
Carter Kieboom has certainly impressed this spring at the plate, but in the field the organization’s top infield prospect has shown he still has work to do. And besides, he won’t make the roster if he’s not going to play every day. So he’ll head to the minors and continue his development until the time is right.
Every indication both manager Davey Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo have given suggests the Nationals want to give four outfielders regular playing time: Juan Soto, Adam Eaton, Victor Robles and Michael A. Taylor. Obviously Soto’s going to play almost every day. And Eaton would like to play that much, though given his injury history the club might try to give him more days off at the outset.
Who’s the starting center fielder? That hasn’t been declared yet. Clearly the Nationals believe in Robles and believe he’s going to be a big part of this team this season, from Day One. He’s not getting demoted to Fresno, barring something really unforeseen at this point. But the organization still believes in Taylor, most notably for his defense in center field. (Most telling: When Eaton is off, Martinez intends to move Robles to right field and keep Taylor in center field.) Point is, both Robles and Taylor are going to play a lot.
If the Nationals choose to keep Sanchez as the final bench player, that doesn’t leave room for a fifth outfielder. They could decide to go that way instead, though their options would be Andrew Stevenson or Hunter Jones. Those options don’t appear to be as appealing as Sanchez, unless the team just really wants another true outfielder on the roster.
Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sanchez and Jeremy Hellickson will make up the opening day rotation. Of that there’s no question. No one else has even started a game yet this spring (though Erick Fedde will end that streak today when he makes the long trip to Fort Myers to face the Twins while Sánchez stays back and faces minor leaguers).
The bigger question here is what happens to the No. 6 and No. 7 starters: Fedde and Joe Ross. All indications had suggested both would open the season at Fresno and be ready to be called up if someone goes down. But Ross has been making short appearances out of the bullpen the last couple of weeks, including back-to-back one-inning outings. Martinez has at least thrown out the idea of keeping him on the big league staff and using him as a reliever, but that’s far from a certain thing. And for a guy coming back from Tommy John surgery and on a pretty regimented program, that doesn’t sound like the kind of thing the Nationals would normally prefer to do.
What looked like a very open-ended question as recently as Wednesday morning got a whole lot clearer when the news broke that the Nationals were signing Tony Sipp. The 35-year-old lefty will be on the roster, unless something goes wrong in the next two weeks.
Sipp figures to be one of at least three lefties in the bullpen, along with closer Sean Doolittle and the versatile Matt Grace. Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough, the team’s first two acquisitions of the offseason, are locks to make the team and likely will pitch in setup roles.
So that leaves two more spots to fill. Martinez has suggested Justin Miller, if healthy, is in the bullpen. And the big right-hander has returned healthy from a lower back strain in recent days. Wander Suero is highly thought of among club officials, for his ability to get guys out from both sides of the plate and pitch multiple innings if needed.
So Miller and Suero are probably front-runners for those last two spots. But the Nationals could go in a different direction, especially because Suero has options and can be sent to the minors. If the team feels the need to keep more of a traditional long man, veterans Henderson Alvarez III or Vidal Nuño III are possible choices. Jimmy Cordero and Tanner Rainey have big arms but have been inconsistent this spring. Scott Copeland and J.J. Hoover also remain in camp as non-roster invitees.