Nats taking final bullpen decisions down to the wire

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – If the Nationals were choosing the final four pitchers to make their Opening Day bullpen based strictly on spring training stats, the decision would be fairly simple.

Andres Machado (zero runs, zero walks in four innings), Hobie Harris (one run, three hits in nine innings), Paolo Espino (one run in eight innings), Thaddeus Ward (four runs, 12 strikeouts in 9 2/3 innings) and Mason Thompson (three runs in seven innings) have performed the best among the relievers competing down to the wire.

Alex Colomé (six runs, 19 baserunners in 9 2/3 innings), Anthony Banda (seven runs in 11 innings) and Wily Peralta (12 earned runs, 24 baserunners in 9 2/3 innings) have not.

Opening Day roster decisions, however, aren’t as simple as that. It’s not just about spring training numbers. It’s about track records. It’s about contract statuses. It’s about who has minor league options.

And ultimately, it’s about keeping as many pitchers in your organization as you can, knowing you’re going to need them all at some point during the long season.

That’s why the bullpen decisions the Nationals face in the coming days aren’t as cut and dried as outside observers would think. What, then, are they looking for in exhibition game performances to help make those decisions?

“The biggest thing for me is limit the damage, and don’t walk people,” manager Davey Martinez said. “That’s one thing I always tell them coming out of the bullpen: Our defense is going to be better. Put the ball in play and trust your teammates.”

In that regard, several of the aforementioned competitors have not been helping their causes down the stretch in camp.

Colomé and Peralta, in particular, have struggled to throw strikes. Though Colomé did toss a scoreless inning Friday night against the Cardinals, the veteran right-hander has walked seven batters in 9 2/3 innings this spring. He’s also had more trouble with the pitch clock than anyone else on the pitching staff.

Peralta, meanwhile, made an absolute mess of the ninth inning Friday night. The veteran righty faced eight St. Louis batters and retired only one of them. Along the way, he surrendered six singles, issued one walk, allowed a stolen base and uncorked a wild pitch. All told, Peralta gave up five runs in only one-third of an inning, leaving him with an unsightly 11.17 ERA.

That doesn’t seem to bode well for him, but the Nationals have to consider not only his performance this spring but also his track record over a long career, especially the 2.58 ERA he posted in 28 appearances for the Tigers last season.

“It’s hard to judge guys like that in spring training,” Martinez said. “You really can’t. He’s continuing to get his work in. He’s going to continue to get his work in. I’ve seen him really good early in spring. He’s been struggling a little, but I don’t read much into that. I know he’s a veteran guy, and I know he’s going to take the ball whenever he’s got an opportunity and try to pitch well.”

Colomé, Peralta, Banda, Harris and Machado all are in camp on minor league contracts and would need to be added to the 40-man roster if they make the club. Espino, Ward and Thompson already are on the 40-man roster, and (aside from Ward, a Rule 5 draft pick) can be optioned to the minors and retained if they don’t make the team.

Four relievers have seemed to be locks from the outset of camp: Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr., Hunter Harvey and Erasmo Ramirez. That leaves four more spots to be filled before Opening Day.

It’s just about time for the Nationals to finally make those decisions.

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