Spring storylines: Can any non-roster invitees make the team?

We’ve reached the final countdown to spring training, so we’re counting down the biggest storylines facing the Nationals this spring in West Palm Beach. We continue today with a look at players not on the team’s 40-man roster who might still have a shot to make the Opening Day roster …

For a team coming off a miserable, 107-loss season, the Nationals don’t appear to have that many jobs up for grabs this spring. Assuming perfect health – it’s never a good idea to assume perfect health, by the way – we could probably pencil in nine everyday position players, five starting pitchers, at least four relievers and a couple bench guys before anyone has officially reported to West Palm Beach.

Which isn’t to suggest there can’t still be some surprises in store over the next six weeks. Or that everyone who heads north with the club has to come from the pre-existing 40-man roster.

The Nats haven’t formally announced how many players in total will be in big league camp, but we already know there will be a healthy number of players invited to compete who signed non-guaranteed, minor league deals over the winter. Some of them, actually, are very well-known players, including a couple with significant recent history with this organization.

None of these players is assured of a job come March 30, but all of them should have a legitimate chance to make their case to the coaching staff and front office this spring. And if anybody does enough to stand out from the crowd, there’s ample reason to believe a roster spot or two could be created for them.

If it happens, it will probably involve the bullpen or bench. And the most likely candidate of all is the one most familiar to Nationals fans: Sean Doolittle.

Doolittle already made his first return to the organization last spring, re-signing after spending 2021 with the Reds and Mariners. And the left-hander looked great in his first five appearances in April, not even allowing a batter to reach base until his final outing. But then came the elbow pain, and when it was all said and done Doolittle chose to undergo an internal brace procedure to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament.

Now he’s back again at 36, this time on a minor league contract, trying to prove he’s healthy and able to recapture his old form. He insists his arm feels great, and he’s been throwing off a bullpen mound with no issues for weeks now. Given the lack of any other established options among their left-handed relievers, there’s certainly reason to believe the Nats will put Doolittle on the team if he has no setbacks this spring.

There are other non-roster candidates for bullpen jobs, as well. The list includes lefties Anthony Banda (who has pitched in 80 major league games for six different organizations) and Francisco Pérez (who pitched in 10 games for the Nationals last season). It also includes a highly accomplished right-hander with considerable closing experience.

Alex Colomé has long been on Mike Rizzo’s radar, once the subject of trade deadline rumors back when the Nats seemingly were always in need of a reliable late-inning reliever during their run of contention. Colomé hasn’t been an elite closer in a few years, and he struggled mightily in Colorado last season. But the 34-year-old boasted a 2.62 ERA, 1.097 WHIP and 54 saves from 2018-20 with the Rays, Mariners and White Sox. And he’s got the kind of track record that should give him a leg up on others competing in camp this spring.

Rizzo also brought in two experienced starters on minor league deals in Chad Kuhl and Wily Peralta. Kuhl, 30, is 31-41 with a 4.74 ERA in 111 career big league starts with the Pirates and Rockies. Peralta, 33, is 56-61 with a 4.29 ERA in 139 career starts with the Brewers, Royals and Tigers.

If everyone in the Nationals’ projected rotation is healthy, there won’t be room for anybody else to begin the season. But if something does happen, that could create an opening for one of the two. And even if not, the team will hope one or both is willing to stick with the organization, begin the season at Triple-A Rochester and wait for the inevitable call to come.

The Nats’ Opening Day bench figures to include a backup catcher (either Riley Adams or Israel Pineda), a backup outfielder (either Alex Call or Stone Garrett) and utility infielder Ildemaro Vargas. That leaves one more spot that could allow both outfielders to make it, or perhaps another infielder like Carter Kieboom or Jake Alu. Or the team could decide to go for more of a thumper, a pinch-hitter and occasional first baseman or DH.

If they go the latter route, they’ve got a couple of non-roster invitees in the mix named Matt Adams and Michael Chavis. Nationals fans already know Adams, who blasted 38 homers while wearing a curly W helmet in 2018-19. After playing a bit for the Braves and Rockies after that, Adams found himself out of affiliated ball last season, launching 27 homers instead for the independent Kansas City Monarchs. Now he’s trying to make it back to the majors.

Chavis has hit 40 homers in 1,090 big league plate appearances with the Red Sox and Pirates, 14 of those last year in 426 plate appearances for Pittsburgh. He also plays second base, third base and the outfield, so that versatility could make the 27-year-old appealing to the Nats.

Then there’s Derek Hill, a speedy 27-year-old outfielder with 95 games of major league experience with the Tigers, five consecutive seasons with 20 or more stolen bases in the minors and the ability to play center field. He may not be as well-known to outsiders as the others, but he’ll get the same opportunity to make his case for a job this spring in West Palm Beach.

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