WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The most significant of Major League Baseball's rule changes for the upcoming season is the three-batter minimum that will now be required for every reliever that enters a game. (With an exception granted for anyone who finishes an inning, even if it's only one batter.)
Less discussed but not necessarily less significant is the addition of a 26th man to the active roster. For as far back as any of us can remember, a baseball roster consisted of 25 players. "We're taking the best 25 north with us," every general manager says multiple times every spring (even if it's not always true.)
Well, it's now the best 26 who will head north at the end of camp. And that creates a real conundrum for the Nationals, because they have to decide how best to utilize that extra roster spot.
There are no shortage of options, so let's run through a bunch of them ...
* An eighth reliever
This seems like the most obvious choice, especially early in the season when starting pitchers' workloads are likely to be monitored more closely than they will later in the year. And given the number of Nationals relievers who are out of options, it might be necessary to use the last spot on the roster to protect one of them from being exposed to waivers.
If we presume Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, Will Harris, Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, Hunter Strickland and Roenis ElÃas are the first seven arms in the bullpen - none of the final four are locks to make it, but they're favored over others in camp - then an eighth reliever could fill one of several roles.
It could be one of the losers from the competition for the No. 5 starter's job (Austin Voth, Joe Ross or Erick Fedde). It could be one of the intriguing relievers acquired over the winter (Kyle Finnegan, Ryne Harper). It could be any of a number of veterans with big league experience trying to crack the roster (Fernando Abad, Aaron Barrett, Sam Freeman, Javy Guerra, David Hernandez, Kevin Quackenbush). Or it could be a young, in-house option who has a great spring (Dakota Bacus, James Bourque, Jhonatan German, Austen Williams).
Those are a lot of viable candidates for only one spot. And that's not even a spot that's guaranteed to go to a pitcher, because the Nationals could choose to go with an entirely different type of player.
* An extra bench player
Davey Martinez keeps talking up how deep and talented the Nationals bench should be, with veterans like Howie Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman, AsdrÃºbal Cabrera and Michael A. Taylor all potentially out of the lineup but available to pinch-hit on a given night. But there are still several other qualified candidates to fill another bench spot if the team is so inclined.
Andrew Stevenson was an outstanding pinch-hitter last season (reached base in 14 of 25 plate appearances) and would be a nice addition to the roster as a fifth outfielder and left-handed bat on the bench. Wilmer Difo and AdriÃ¡n Sanchez would give Martinez a true backup shortstop so Trea Turner could have an occasional day off. Emilio Bonifacio is a valuable jack-of-all-trades and has the kind of infectious clubhouse presence that has already earned him comparisons to Gerardo Parra. Any one of them could make a case to make the team.
* A third catcher
This is something that Martinez wants to seriously consider. The idea is that a third catcher on the active roster would allow him to use Kurt Suzuki (and Yan Gomes, to a lesser extent) as a pinch-hitter while still ensuring there's a backup catcher in case somebody got hurt.
The Nationals signed veteran Welington Castillo over the winter for this reason, but Castillo hasn't played yet due to a sore right shoulder. If he misses any significant amount of time, it could foil this potential plan, though Raudy Read and Tres Barrera are other options to serve as the third catcher if the club decides to go that route.