Williams encouraged with Cole despite cut, plus Escobar and Rendon updates

JUPITER, Fla. - The Nationals optioned right-handed pitcher A.J. Cole to Triple-A Syracuse this morning. Cole, ranked the No. 52 prospect in baseball by MLB.com, gave up three solo home runs among eight hits in seven innings this spring.

“I thought he pitched really well and we’ve got to get him back down and get his normal routine going,” Nationals manager Matt Williams said.

Williams has indicated that more roster moves are coming for pitchers as the starting rotation continues eating up innings by pitching deeper into games as they build up arm strength.

cole-spring-nats-sidebar.jpgCole returns to Syracuse, where he was 7-0 with a 3.43 ERA in 11 starts last year after making the jump from Double-A Harrisburg midway through the season.

“He’s working on his secondary pitches and that’s the key for him,” Williams said. “He runs the fastball in there in the mid 90s and as a starter, he can do that for extending innings. But the key for him is the breaking ball and changeup.

“He’s close. If there’s something that would happen, he’s somebody that we would think about.”

Second baseman Yunel Escobar continues to increase his rehab work as he recovers from a strained oblique muscle.

“He took about 25 grounders at second base yesterday and threw the ball across,” Williams said. “He ran the bases, he threw long toss and today he’s going to transition into swinging the bat a little bit. So it’s part of his progression, but he feels good coming out of yesterday.”

Escobar was one of the few Nats position players that really needed work in spring training because he’s essentially learning how to play a new position. It’s unclear whether he’ll make it back before the start of the season.

“He’s certainly looking at opening day as we are, but we want to make sure he’s 100 percent healthy and he feels good about his at-bats and playing in the field, too,” Williams said.

escobar-spring-training-sidebar.jpgThird baseman Anthony Rendon ran on the treadmill yesterday for the first time since spraining his left MCL in his third exhibition game. Williams said there were no issues and Rendon plans to run more today.

Williams still doesn’t have a date for when left fielder Jayson Werth will start playing in games. He continues light hitting drills and his hitting program today while rehabbing from right shoulder surgery.

The Nats will not use the designated hitter from here on out through the remainder of the Grapefruit League season. Right-hander Doug Fister will get the first opportunity to step in the box today against Marlins starter Mat Latos.

“Doug will get a chance to see some pitches,” Williams said. “We look for him lay down a sacrifice bunt regardless of situation today just to get him used to that, and if he gets a second turn around then we’ll let him see some pitches and hopefully swing the bat.”

The Nationals released infielder Jeff Kobernus after last night’s game. The team’s 2009 second-round pick hit .139 with a home run in 28 games with the Nationals. He managed just two hits in 13 at-bats this spring.

“Kobi just wasn’t going to have a chance with us, so we thought it would be important for him to get out there early enough and hopefully latch on with another club and have a chance to go play,” Williams said. “Out of respect for him, we wanted to make sure we did that. He’s a good kid and he’s got lots of talent, but it just didn’t stack for him here with regard to all the guys that we’ve got. “

The Nationals announced this morning that new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred will throw the ceremonial first pitch on opening day at Nats Park. This will be Manfred’s first opening day appearance and major league ceremonial first pitch since he took office in January.

“We are so honored that commissioner Manfred has chosen to spend this historic opening day in Washington,” Nationals owner Mark Lerner said in a team release. “His participation will be incredibly special as we kick off our 10-year anniversary season.”

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