Downs' bruised hand adds wrinkle to bench competition

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Three players vying for the final spot on the Nationals’ Opening Day bench remain in big league camp, but one of them is not currently playing.

Jeter Downs, who has twice been hit by a pitch on the hand in the last week, didn’t play Wednesday afternoon against the Yankees and isn’t on the lineup card for tonight’s game against the Astros.

Manager Davey Martinez said X-rays on Downs’ hand were negative, but he does have a contusion and needs at least a few days to heal. That complicates the infielder’s chances of heading north with the club, given how few opportunities remain to make a case.

“I want to see him get some at-bats,” Martinez said. “We’ve been working on some stuff with him hitting, and I want to see him back out there to see if he can do these things we’re asking him to do. But I don’t want to him push himself to try to get back out there. I want to make sure that (he’s healthy).”

Downs, the former top prospect of the Dodgers and Red Sox whom the Nationals claimed off waivers this winter, is batting just .176 (6-for-34) with three RBIs, three walks and 12 strikeouts this spring. His ability to play multiple infield positions as well as the outfield, though, makes him intriguing as a 26th man on the roster.

Also in competition for that spot are infielder Michael Chavis (8-for-37, one homer, four RBIs, two walks, 13 strikeouts) and first baseman/DH Matt Adams (12-for-37, five doubles, one homer, four RBIs, zero walks, nine strikeouts). Both are in camp on minor-league contracts and would need to be added to the 40-man roster in order to be included on the team come next Thursday.

“In a perfect world, you’d want a guy that can steal a base for you, do multiple things, play different positions,” Martinez said of his ideal 26th man. “But that’s a guy who’s going to wear it sometimes and not play for six or seven days. …

“It’s made it hard. I’m trying to see how guys would fit in that role and what we could do. If it’s the end of the year and you’re playing to get into the playoffs, you want a guy with speed. You want a guy that can get on base and pinch-run. But we’re not there yet. So this could be different.”

The Nationals also must decide who will fill the last spots in their Opening Day bullpen, a complicating matter in itself as they balance between pitchers on the 40-man roster who have options (Paolo Espino, Mason Thompson), pitchers on minor-league contracts (Anthony Banda, Alex Colomé, Hobie Harris, Andrés Machado, Wily Peralta) and Rule 5 draftee Thaddeus Ward.

One other scenario that could play out: Because projected No. 5 starter Chad Kuhl is on a minor-league deal and won’t be needed until either April 4 or 5 to face the Rays, the Nats could decide to keep him here in Florida and pitch in a minor-league game before calling him up the day he actually starts in D.C.

That would allow them to keep a ninth reliever on the Opening Day roster, delaying a decision on one of those pitchers for a few extra days.

“It’s something that we’ve talked about,” Martinez said. “I haven’t gotten a definitive answer, but it’s something we can do.”

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