Which players are on Nationals' roster bubble?

When the Nationals convene in 10 days at West Palm Beach, Fla., they will be full of optimism and eager to erase the stench of a 26-34 record in the truncated 2020 season that earned them a share of last place in the National League East.

But amid all the cliches about being in the best shape of their lives, boundless hope that things will be better in 2021 and the inevitable focus on how newcomers to the organization will adjust, one factor drives performances more than any other.

Some guys in camp, even some with 40-man roster spots, won't survive the waves of roster-trimming that will be necessary to whittle more than 50 players down to a 26-man roster before opening day on April 1 at home against the Mets. The Nats currently have just one open spot on the 40-man roster with the addition of catcher Alex Avila.

Though the offseason trains the focus on who's new and who's expected to rebound, general manager Mike Rizzo's job is never done. He must massage his roster daily, simultaneously keeping an eye on the waiver wire and discussing trades with his front office peers while deciding who's the next man to go if the Nats make an acquisition.

This is baseball's circle of life, a routine performed in the enclaves of each of 30 major league general managers. When the NCAA basketball tournament field is being whittled, prognosticators like to talk about the next teams in and the first teams out; this is the diamond corollary. If your 40-man roster is full, you always know who the first man off will be - who's expendable for whatever reason, who has options remaining, who plays a position of strength and who mans a position of need. If a name you like shows up on the waiver wire or is mentioned in trade talks, each GM is already thinking ahead and knows how he's going to create necessary roster space.

And even if the 40-man isn't jammed full, executives know where they are thin and where they are covered on their rosters. Unsurprisingly, the players know, too - it's something that motivates them.

So who are the Nats on the roster bubble, the guys who could easily be expendable if a better option came along? Who are the players whose luck is a few bad innings or weak at-bats away from running out? Who are the Nationals who have just as good a chance at getting waived and/or released as they do of making the big club or being a phone call away in the minors?

Like all teams, the Nats have a few. Some are obvious and others aren't. Some are on the 40-man, some are going to be in camp as non-roster invitees, hoping to earn enough of manager Davey Martinez's trust to secure employment for the duration of the season. Players might not realize they're on the last of their nine baseball lives, or they might use that knowledge as a spark to make them play better.

Take right-hander Rogelio Armenteros, for example. The 26-year-old, acquired off waivers from the Diamondbacks on Dec. 7, came up through the Astros system and made his major league debut for them in 2019, going 1-1 with a 4.00 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP in five games, including two starts.

The Nationals need pitching depth at Triple-A Rochester in 2021, and that seems to be Armenteros' calling right now. He was 35-20 with a 3.45 ERA in five minor league seasons, with 93 of his 106 appearances coming as a starter. With a veteran-laden rotation and a bullpen boasting experience, there doesn't seem a clear path to the majors for the Cuban native. So it wouldn't be a surprise if Armenteros got cut as opposed to heading to Frontier Field, assuming a better arm were available. For him, spring training will be a look-see, a chance to impress a new club and see if he can carve out a niche. But he'll always be looking over his shoulder.

Ditto for righty Kyle McGowin, 29, who was acquired from the Angels in the Danny Espinosa trade on Dec. 10, 2016. McGowin has one option remaining, meaning the Nationals can send him from the 40-man to the minor leagues for one more season (when on optional assignment, a player can move between the minors and majors multiple times within one option). He's had a few cups of coffee in D.C., with his nine-game stint last season producing his first major league victory and a 4.91 ERA and a 1.273 WHIP, his best marks in an admittedly small sample size. He was primarily a starter through his first six minor league seasons before transitioning to relief last year. While he's a known commodity, McGowin doesn't have a clear role, which could mean his 40-man spot is in jeopardy.

Likewise, the Nationals will need to figure out what to do with the two guys who don't make the cut as a fifth starter out of a trio comprising right-handers Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth. For the sake of argument, let's say Ross wins the battle. That leaves either Fedde or Voth to function as a swingman out of the bullpen and the other to head to the Rochester rotation. Unless Rizzo finds someone he's more comfortable with as an insurance policy at Triple-A. Ross and Voth are out of options, while Fedde has one remaining. Because of their poor performances in the majors, neither Fedde nor Voth will fetch much in trade.

Catchers Ready for Pen spring.jpgBehind the plate, things are also muddled. By inking veteran Avila to a one-year deal to back up starter Yan Gomes, the Nats showed how little confidence they have in rookie Tres Barrera's ability to earn a 26-man roster spot even though he's on the 40-man. Both Barrera 26, and likely non-roster invite Raudy Read, 27, have weathered suspensions for using performance-enhancing drugs. Between them, they have 13 plate appearances in the majors. The presence of veteran Welington Castillo, another non-roster player with ties to Martinez from their days with the Cubs, could mean a change in role for Barrera and/or Read - from one-time prospect to organizational filler. Catcher of the future Israel Pineda is 20 and hasn't played above low Single-A, so familiarity might be enough to keep Barrera and Read employed. Or maybe not.

Outfielder Yadiel Hernández finally made the majors last season as a 32-year-old and hit his first homer, a walk-off blast that beat the Phillies on Sept. 22. Fans love to dream about Hernández's power - including a 33-homer campaign at Triple-A Fresno in 2019 - translating to the majors, but that's a big ask, even for a guy with a spot on the 40-man roster.

Hernández is the definition of a guy without a position. He won't supplant any of the starting outfielders and asking him to beat out a Josh Harrison or Andrew Stevenson for a roster spot as a backup is asking a lot. Sure, the Cuban import was a late bloomer of sorts, with a career .301/385/.503 slash line in the minors and a .324/.449/.487 line in six seasons in his native country. But he didn't exactly light things up in a 12-game audition in 2020, slashing .192/.214/.423, though four of his five hits went for extra bases. His age and experience make him a unique case, but would anyone be surprised if the Nats parted ways with Hernández, particularly if they were to acquire a similar role player who is younger, plays better defense, strikes out less and can function effectively as a part-timer? Hernández could just as easily be looking for work as packing his bags for the International League.

Armenteros, McGowin, Fedde, Voth, Barrera, and Hernández aren't the only guys with a tenuous grasp of a 40-man spot. But they do appear to be the kind of players who, despite some history with the Nats (save for Armenteros), don't seem to be sure bets to be around for the long term.

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