After flurry of moves, Nationals’ roster just about set

VIERA, Fla. - After a series of roster cuts this afternoon, the Nationals’ opening day roster is one move from being set.

The Nationals optioned Roger Bernadina and Collin Balester to Triple-A Syracuse today, where those players will join Ross Detwiler, and reassigned Brian Bixler to minor league camp. They also moved Henry Rodriguez to the 15-day disabled list, and put Chien-Ming Wang and Elvin Ramirez on the 60-day disabled list.

The Nationals are now down to 26 players, with the only decision remaining between Alex Cora and Alberto Gonzalez for the final infield spot. Assuming Cora makes it (he’s the favorite there), the Nationals will go north with four non-roster invitees (Cora, Laynce Nix, Chad Gaudin and Matt Stairs) and a Rule 5 pick (Brian Broderick) on their opening day roster.

There are a flurry of moves here, so I’m going to throw a couple tidbits in on each of them, and then I’ll have a couple more posts, with Broderick’s reaction to making the team and a question I want to pose to all of you:

* Manager Jim Riggleman said keeping Nix over Bernadina was one of the hardest decisions the Nationals had to make. Ultimately, they decided Bernadina - who played 134 games in the majors last season - would be better-served by playing every day at Triple-A Syracuse than getting a few at-bats in the big leagues. “We’re really looking for the veteran guy,” Riggleman said. “Once we decided on Ankiel in center and Morse in left, we were looking for more of a veteran guy there in Nix to pinch hit and possibly come in late in the game, and also for Roger to go play every day.” Bernadina, who had a meager .691 OPS in the majors last year, started off well, but finishes the spring hitting just .245. “We still think that Roger’s got a chance to be a 450-to-550-at-bat guy, so rather than start off the season with him getting four or five at-bats a week, we’re going to send him down there and let him play,” Riggleman said.

* Balester was impressive in the bullpen late last year and had a 1.59 ERA this spring, but he loses out on the final spot so the Nationals can keep Broderick, who would have had to be offered back to the Cardinals if he hadn’t made the team. So Balester, who seems to have found a home in the bullpen, is a classic casualty of the options game. “We just reassured him that he’s pitched himself onto the ballclub,” Riggleman said. “We’re not letting (him) make the ballclub right now because we’ve got some other situations where we would lose some people. We feel confident at some point we’ll have to call on Bally, and he’ll be ready to help us. I think he felt good that he didn’t pitch himself off the ballclub.”

* With Nix, Stairs, Cora and Rick Ankiel all likely to make the roster - and be on the bench against left-handed pitchers - the Nationals could have a problem in late innings of those games when they need a pinch hitter. On those days, Wilson Ramos or Ivan Rodriguez would be the only right-handed option off the bench, and teams typically don’t like to burn their second catcher as a pinch hitter, in case the starting catcher gets hurt. So Riggleman said he might pinch hit for Adam LaRoche with one of the catchers in those games and keep the second catcher in at first base, so he can switch Rodriguez or Ramos to catcher if the other gets injured. In an emergency, he said, Gonzalez or Cora could catch. So, too, could Michael Morse - he caught a few bullpen sessions last year, though the idea of the 6-foot-4 slugger in catcher’s gear brought a snicker from one reporter; OK, it was this reporter. At any rate, the Nationals will have to get creative at times against left-handers - Riggleman said they might have to let Stairs face a lefty, something he’s done in only 17.3 percent of his career plate appearances. Otherwise, Riggleman said, the Nationals would likely hold him back to face closers, who are mostly right-handed, or could use him in the fifth or sixth inning against a right-handed starter the opposing team might not be ready to pull yet.

More in a little bit.