Dusty Baker has been making roster cuts for two decades, and he admits they're never easy, especially those that come on the cusp of opening day.
The cuts the Nationals' new manager had to make Friday night might have been his toughest ever.
"My heart goes out to these guys," Baker said. "I didn't really sleep that well last night, at all, because it affects him. I've been there. I know their families are affected. But it's a big boy game, and that's part of the game."
The club's final roster decisions: Blake Treinen earned the final spot in the opening day bullpen over Sean Burnett and Trevor Gott, and Chris Heisey earned the final spot on the bench over Matt den Dekker, Reed Johnson and Brendan Ryan.
The decision to keep Treinen, Baker said, boiled down to the right-hander's dominance this spring (9 2/3 scoreless innings in exhibition play) and the likelihood he'll be needed to pitch late in games as one of the club's set-up men.
"He had an outstanding spring," Baker said. "And he's one of our back-of-the-bullpen guys. And he's a guy that can throw up a double play or get a strikeout when you need it. And it appears he's maturing in front of our very eyes. He's gaining confidence every day."
Burnett likewise dominated this spring, tossing 8 2/3 scoreless innings. But the veteran left-hander, who hasn't pitched regularly in the big leagues since 2012 due to elbow injuries that required the second Tommy John surgery of his career, wound up not making the club.
Burnett, who had an April 1 opt-out clause in his minor league contract, was not at Nationals Park this morning, his locker cleaned out. The lefty expected other clubs to be interested in him if he didn't make the opening day roster, and a source said he wouldn't be reporting to Triple-A.
Ultimately, the Nationals decided to keep one veteran reliever who was in camp on a minor league deal: Matt Belisle. The club cleared a spot on its 40-man roster for him by placing Aaron Barrett (who will miss most of 2016 while recovering from Tommy John surgery) on the 60-day disabled list.
"It came down to a matter of numbers," Baker said. "Who don't you keep? (Shawn) Kelley signed a three-year contract. Belisle has an outstanding track record. Do you carry three left-handers or two left-handers? And the rest of the bullpen was kind of set as it was. ... It was a very, very, very tough decision, especially with Mike Rizzo involved because he's close to Sean Burnett."
Gott, who was acquired from the Angels in December for veteran infielder Yunel Escobar, enjoyed success late last season as a key member of Los Angeles' bullpen. But the Nationals will ask the young right-hander to work on improving his secondary pitches at Triple-A Syracuse, expecting to call him back up at some point.
"I mean, this guy has upside potential," Baker said. "But the Angels didn't have quite the pitching that we have. My message to him was: Just go down and pitch. We love the stuff. We love his demeanor. This guy, he doesn't appear to be intimidated by anybody. Just go down and pitch. I urged him to work on his secondary pitches. Because he has an electric fastball. But it just didn't seem like his breaking stuff or his secondary pitches were equal in command as his fastball."
The final spot on the bench went to Heisey, based both on the right-handed outfielder best fitting on the current, left-handed-heavy roster and on his track record as a pinch-hitter (career .936 OPS in 142 at-bats).
The 31-year-old Heisey, who spent most of last season playing for the Dodgers' Triple-A club, was thrilled to learn he made the roster in Washington (just a short drive from his home outside Harrisburg, Pa.).
"I think my track record has shown that I can hit for power off the bench and play good defense in the outfield," Heisey said. "Hopefully I can bring some other stuff off the field, a winning attitude and hopefully be a good teammate. I know as a bench player you have more to do than just pinch-hit. You've got to pick up your teammates that are playing every day. Those guys need to be patted on the back and be told how well they're doing. If they're struggling, maybe I can find something that can get them back going well again. There's other intangibles that I like to think I can bring to a team."
Johnson's locker was cleaned out this morning, but Ryan's remained intact (though the veteran infielder wasn't seen in the clubhouse). The fates of the three veterans on minor league deals who didn't make the team (Johnson, Ryan and Burnett) has yet to be announced.