Williams on short leash as No. 5 starter; Wood headed to Rochester

JUPITER, Fla. – Trevor Williams will open the season in the Nationals’ rotation, but the leash on the veteran right-hander could be short.

In granting Zach Davies his unconditional release Friday, the Nats also selected Williams for the final spot in the Opening Day rotation, hoping the 31-year-old can bounce back from a difficult 2023 season. But with pitching prospect Jackson Rutledge beginning the season at Triple-A Rochester and Cade Cavalli expected to return from Tommy John surgery in June, the organization will have alternate options in the near future, putting pressure on Williams to pitch well enough to keep his job.

“It was a tough choice, a tough decision,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We decided we were going to go with Trevor as our fifth starter. So Trevor will be our fifth starter. … Zach was a professional. He’s a good guy. I wish him all the best. And hopefully, he gets picked up somewhere. But Trevor’s done well. I think he deserves a chance, at least at the beginning, to start. And then we’ll see where it goes from there.”

Martinez said the Nationals offered Davies (who finished with a Grapefruit League ERA of 9.00 after a seven-run inning in his last start) the opportunity to report to Rochester, but the 31-year-old opted to become a free agent and attempt to sign with another club.

The decision to stick with Williams (who is making $7 million this season) in the rotation, rather than move him to the bullpen, has a domino effect on several relievers still competing for spots on the Opening Day roster. With Robert Garcia likely to make it as the only lefty in the group, there are now three veteran right-handers on minor league contracts trying to win two remaining jobs: Derek Law, Jacob Barnes and Matt Barnes.

The team must inform Matt Barnes, plus outfielders Eddie Rosario and Jesse Winker, if they’ve made the club by noon Sunday. If any of them don’t make it, they are allowed to opt out of their contracts.

The bullpen competition came into narrow focus Friday after the Nationals reassigned lefties Richard Bleier and Joe La Sorsa to minor league camp. Bleier, an eight-year veteran who had a 1.69 ERA and 0.750 WHIP in 10 games this spring, had an opt-out in his contract but informed the club he will report to Rochester.

“The decision to send those guys down was tough because I’d love to have two lefties in the bullpen,” Martinez said. “But as I talked to them: Opening Day is a big thing, but it’s not the end or the middle. It’s one day. Something could change in a week, something could change in two weeks. Just go down there and keep yourself ready.”

* The Nationals haven’t finalized minor league rosters yet, but Martinez did say he expects top outfield prospect James Wood to open the year at Triple-A. Wood, who led all qualified major league hitters with a 1.198 OPS this spring, spent more time last season at Double-A Harrisburg than fellow prospects Dylan Crews and Brady House.

“Wood is probably going to go to Triple-A and just continue to get better,” Martinez said. “This kid is really good. I just want him to get at-bats. I tell him all the time, just continue to take his walks, get the ball up when he hits and just try to play the best defense he can. He’s going to play center, he’s going to play left. I told him on occasion he might play right field. I want him to be ready at all three.”

The only top prospect still in major league camp is infielder Trey Lipscomb, who continues to get serious consideration for a spot on the Opening Day roster. The 2022 third-round pick has a .364/.429/.523 slash line in 19 games this spring and has seen time at second base, third base and shortstop.

In keeping with longstanding organizational philosophy, the Nationals will only put Lipscomb on the club if he’s going to be a regular member of the lineup. Martinez added this morning that doesn’t necessarily mean Lipscomb would play the same position every day, comparing him to former Rays super-utilityman Ben Zobrist.

“Yeah, I think I could play him in different spots,” the manager said. “I could play him at second, I could play him at third a little bit. We haven’t put him in the outfield, but we’ve worked with him there, and he’s really good out there. So I could put him in left field, too.

“For him and his development, I just don’t know yet. Do I keep him at one position and say: ‘You’re just going to play here when we deem you’re ready,’ or do we let him play here and play five or six times a week, but play him everywhere?”

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