WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - I think we can officially say we’ve reached the home stretch. Following yesterday’s off-day, the Nationals now have only four more game days here in Florida before heading north for Monday’s final exhibition against the Yankees in D.C.
Opening day against the Mets is exactly one week away.
So, yes, this is the home stretch of spring training. Which means it’s decision time.
The Nationals don’t have a whole lot of significant decisions still to make, but they do have to pare the roster down to 25 from its current total of 39. And, really, the biggest decisions are going to involve health.
That list of 39 includes three players who aren’t currently healthy and playing in games: Koda Glover (forearm strain), Howie Kendrick (hamstring strain) and Michael A. Taylor (sprained knee and hip). Glover hasn’t been cleared to resume throwing yet, so he’s guaranteed to open the season on the newly renamed injured list. Taylor, despite having surprisingly progressed to the point he can play catch and hit off a tee only days after injuring himself, isn’t going to be ready in the next week. So he’ll start out on the IL as well, with Andrew Stevenson the likely choice to take his roster spot unless the Nats go out and acquire another outfielder in the next few days.
Kendrick is the question mark. He strained his left hamstring running to first base on March 5. In recent days, he has been fielding grounders, taking batting practice and running, so he’s making good progress. But he still needs game reps. He’s likely to start taking a whole bunch of at-bats in minor league games the next couple of days. If all goes well, he could maybe appear in one or two big league exhibition games.
But that’s a tight window for the 35-year-old, who is also coming back from the far more serious right Achilles tendon rupture. Kendrick would love to be back in time. The Nationals would love for him to be back in time. But they won’t risk if they don’t think he’s ready, and they have a capable short-term replacement in Adrián Sanchez if needed.
The club also needs to finalize its opening day bullpen, which really boils down to two questions: Is Tony Sipp going to be ready after signing late, and are Wander Suero and Justin Miller locks to make the team?
Sipp is furiously trying to get himself into shape after signing a big league deal March 13. The veteran lefty still needs to face live hitters, then make at least two game appearances before the Nationals will consider putting him in the opening day bullpen. But they kind of have no choice but to do it regardless, because Sipp signed a major league deal and must either open the season on the 25-man roster or the IL.
Assuming Sipp makes it, he joins Sean Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough and Matt Grace in the bullpen. That leaves two more spots to fill, and Suero and Miller seem like the clear favorites. Both right-handers are healthy, both pitched well for chunks of the 2018 season and both have been talked up by management this spring.
What alternatives do the Nationals have? There’s Austen Williams, who quietly has retired 18 of 20 batters faced this spring. (Williams does have options, though, so he could be sent to the minors and be on-call if and when he’s needed.) There are non-roster veterans Henderson Alvarez III, Scott Copeland and Vidal Nuño III. And there’s Joe Ross, who has mostly pitched in relief this spring and was floated as a potential bullpen option, but seems far more likely to open the season in the rotation at Triple-A Fresno.