Spring storylines: When will injured players be ready to play?

What was the most unexpected development of the Nationals’ 2023 season? How about the way they managed to keep the vast majority of their roster healthy?

The Nats used only eight starting pitchers, and five of them topped 120 innings. Seven of their regular nine position players avoided the injured list altogether. Four relievers appeared in 50-plus games.

It was a remarkable run of good health for an organization that didn’t exactly boast a lot of depth to account for major losses.

Not that the Nationals completely avoided the IL. Cade Cavalli tore his elbow ligament in March and missed the entire season. Victor Robles hurt his back in May and barely played after that. Stone Garrett broke his leg and injured his ankle on a scary play in August. Riley Adams broke a bone in his wrist in September. Oh yeah, and then there was Stephen Strasburg.

When the team reports for spring training this week, though, optimism will reign throughout the clubhouse. This should be, for the most part, a healthy roster to open camp. But plenty of eyes will be focused on the aforementioned players returning from injury.

Robles and Adams should be the least of anyone’s concern. The former played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, and there’s no indication last year’s back injury remains an issue. Adams has had more than enough time to heal from his broken hamate bone; the only real question there is whether it takes him as long as others who had the same injury to rediscover his power stroke.

The bigger stories this spring revolve around Cavalli and Garrett.

The 2023 season was supposed to be a big one for Cavalli, who was ticketed for the Opening Day rotation and was expected to make 25-plus starts in his first extended stretch in the big leagues. But when he felt his elbow pop throwing a wayward changeup March 14 against the Mets, that plan was flushed down the toilet.

So now the 2024 season will have to provide the now-25-year-old right-hander his first real opportunity to pitch in the majors. And it appears that opportunity won’t come for another few months.

Though Cavalli will be 12 full months removed from Tommy John surgery by mid-March, the Nationals intend to bring him along at a slower pace. It’s believed he’ll already be throwing when camp opens this week, but he’s not expected to face hitters or pitch in exhibition games alongside his teammates.

The target for Cavalli’s return to the Nats rotation is June, which means he’ll probably stay behind in West Palm Beach when camp ends and continue to ramp things up at extended spring training. That would put him on course to spend May on a minor-league rehab assignment, building up his innings, before the Nationals activate him off the 60-day IL.

The upshot of that plan: If everything goes well, Cavalli should be able to pitch through season’s end and not be subject to the kind of late-season shutdown the organization’s previous Tommy John pitchers dealt with. All of this, of course, is contingent upon there being no setbacks along the way.

A target date for Garrett’s return is less clear. The 28-year-old outfielder stayed in Washington over the winter to rehab from his gruesome injury, was walking without crutches by Thanksgiving and was running by Christmas.

The real test, though, will come when Garrett is on the field taking part in baseball every day. Will the Nationals let him participate in full, or will they hold him back? Will he play in Grapefruit League games from the outset, or will he be delayed?

Without knowing the answers to those questions, it’s hard to know when exactly his season debut should come. For what it’s worth, the Nats at this point are still lacking an everyday designated hitter. Garrett would be the top candidate for that job. If he’s ready for it.

As for Strasburg … nothing appears to have changed. He was unable to pitch last season, and by August he conceded he would never be able to fully recover from his 2021 thoracic outlet surgery. Plans were made for a retirement ceremony.

That ceremony, of course, still hasn’t taken place, with the Nationals and Strasburg unable to agree on financial terms of his retirement because he’s still owed three years and more than $100 million of the $245 million extension he signed after the 2019 World Series.

Strasburg continues to take up space on the Nats’ 40-man roster until they’re allowed to start placing players on the 60-day IL again. There may well again be a locker with his name and equipment in the clubhouse this week in West Palm Beach, but there’s no reason to believe he’ll be there in person.

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