The Nationals have been very clear about how they will utilize their top pitching prospects. Guys like Jackson Rutledge and Cade Cavalli project to be front-line starters, and general manager Mike Rizzo has confirmed that's the path the organization has set them on.
But the futures of some mid-level prospects aren't as certain. Guys like Seth Romero and Ben Braymer have pitched both as starters and relievers throughout their careers, dating back to their time in college and continuing through their short time as professional ballplayers. So deciding which path leads them to the majors full-time is more complicated.
Both left-handers were drafted with starter potential. Yet both made their major league debuts last year out of the bullpen and were almost only used as relievers.
Flash forward to spring training now and the Nationals are stretching both southpaws out as starters.
Of the two, Romero profiled more as a starter coming out of college. Scouting reports had him as a front-of-the-rotation, top-10 talent, but he fell to the Nationals at No. 25 overall in 2017 due to off-the-field issues and his dismissal from the University of Houston team. Now in his third major league camp in four years (he missed all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery), Romero is getting the chance to fulfill his pre-draft potential.
"For right now, I'd like to see him stretched out," said manager Davey Martinez. "Down the road, we don't know how we're going to use him, but we want to build him up and get him stretched out. I mean, here's a guy that we can potentially start but also can use out of the bullpen for multiple innings if need be. But we want to stretch him out right now and then we'll make a decision as we get further along."
Romero didn't find much success out of the bullpen last year, posting a 13.50 ERA in just three appearances after having his contract selected to replace the injured Sean Doolittle in August. But his stuff flashed and impressed the major league coaching staff, with his fastball sitting at 92 mph, topping out at 93, and all five strikeouts coming on off-speed pitches.
Due to the adjusted spring training schedule to limit travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nationals had an off-day on Tuesday after just two games to start Grapefruit League play. That gave Romero the chance to face major league hitters in live batting practice.
"He looked good, really good," Martinez said Wednesday morning. "He had a mix of three pitches as well. ... Here's another guy, for me, that needs to get stretched out. He hasn't pitched much, you know, he hasn't had many innings in the minor leagues, per se, due to injuries and other things. So we need to get him stretched out. But he's one of our young prospects that we're really high on and we're going to get him stretched out. But he faced some really good hitters yesterday: Josh Bell, (Kyle) Schwarber, (Carter) Kieboom, those guys, (Victor) Robles. So he got some good work in. Threw about 30-35 pitches. But he looked good."
Through those minor league innings - 47 1/3 to be exact, all as a starter - Romero posted a collective 4.75 ERA between the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and short-season Single-A Auburn in 2017 and low Single-A Hagerstown in 2018.
Braymer, on the other hand, has been almost exclusively a reliever his entire career. The 2016 18th-round draft pick out of Auburn University made only four starts in 21 college appearances. It wasn't until 2019 that the Nationals started using him as a full-time starter, with 26 starts between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Fresno. So it was a bit of a surprise when Martinez said he wants to see Braymer as a starter in camp.
"He's an unbelievable competitor, I know that," Martinez praised. "And he wants to pitch and he wants to help us win no matter what we ask him to do, whether it's to start, which I kind of like, or to pitch in the bullpen. So he's another guy, for me, that I feel like right now we need to stretch him out and keep him as a starter because later on we can always switch, put him in the bullpen if we need to. But I want to see Braymer start. Like I said, he's got three good pitches, so if we get we could stretch him out, we'll see where he's at."
It's Braymer's use of those three pitches and an increase in his velocity that has caught Martinez's eye and given the skipper visions of a future rotation arm.
"Oh, he looks real good so far," explained Martinez. "I was surprised that his velo, you know, he used to throw 92 (mph), top it out 93. Last year, his velo was down. This year, he tweaked his mechanics a little bit over the winter and his first outing, he was throwing the ball at 92, which is a great sign. So he's got three really good pitches. He's not afraid, I can tell you that. I mean, he uses both sides of the plate in and out, could throw his changeup at any count and he's got a really good curveball. He had a lot of experience last year, gained a lot of experience. I think this year, he understands what he needs to do, and I'm just looking forward to watching him go out there and compete."
That experience from last year included a 1.23 ERA over his three appearances with the Nationals. Coincidently or not, his most impressive outing was his last of the season and only start, in which he earned the win while striking out four Marlins over five innings of one-hit, shutout ball in the second game of a Sept. 20 doubleheader in Miami.
Click here for more on that experience and what Braymer has learned so far in spring training from the man himself.