VIERA, Fla. - The Nationals made several key transactions following today’s rained-out finale at Space Coast Stadium, though not enough to bring absolute clarity to their opening day roster.
Trea Turner, the organization’s top position player prospect who came to camp trying to win the starting shortstop job, was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse in a move that had grown in likelihood over the course of the spring.
Reliever Rafael Martin also was optioned to Syracuse, while outfielder Tony Campana, infielder Scott Sizemore, catcher Jhonatan Solano and relievers Aaron Laffey and Nick Masset all were reassigned to minor league camp.
The moves leave 30 healthy players in big league camp, with six days to go before all clubs must set their final 25-man opening day rosters.
Turner’s demotion was the most significant of today’s transactions, though it didn’t come as much of a surprise. The 22-year-old reported to camp last month and was told he would have a shot to beat out Danny Espinosa and Stephen Drew for the starting shortstop job, but it probably would have required a knock-your-socks-off spring from the rookie to unseat either veteran.
Turner didn’t quite do that, though he did impress, hitting .257 with a .341 on-base percentage, five walks and seven strikeouts. He was a perfect 7-for-7 on stolen base attempts, more than doubling the output of any other player in camp. Espinosa, meanwhile, got off to an abysmal start at the plate, going hitless in his first 18 at-bats. Since then, he’s 4-for-12 with a homer, while also excelling in the field.
Manager Dusty Baker said Turner, who hit .225 in a 27-game major league debut late last season, took this news well and recognizes it’s only a matter of time before he gets the call back up to D.C.
“You know when you can play,” Baker said. “And he had a good attitude about it.”
Though nobody with the organization has formally stated it yet, Espinosa is expected to start at shortstop on opening day next week. The 28-year-old, who has spent most of his six big league seasons with the Nationals playing second base, has been positioned all along to supplant Ian Desmond at short, at least until consensus opinion states that Turner is ready to take over.
Espinosa will be backed up by Drew, who signed a one-year, $3 million contract this winter as a free agent. Others guaranteed of spots on the season-opening bench include catcher Jose Lobaton, outfielder Michael A. Taylor and first baseman/outfielder Clint Robinson (who officially was told by Baker today he’s making the club for the second straight year).
That likely leaves one remaining bench job up for grabs, with four players currently in camp and in the mix: outfielders Matt den Dekker, Chris Heisey and Reed Johnson and infielder Brendan Ryan. The latter three veterans all are in camp on minor league contracts; den Dekker is on the 40-man roster but has options and thus is eligible to be demoted.
Today’s moves also pared down the list of pitchers vying for the last two spots in the Nationals bullpen. (Five relievers already have guaranteed contracts and are locks to make the club: Jonathan Papelbon, Shawn Kelley, Felipe Rivero, Oliver Perez and Yusmeiro Petit.)
Baker strongly suggested today that Belisle (who previously pitched for him in Cincinnati) will make the team, though the two sides still have to finalize contract details. (Belisle is on a minor league deal and has the right to opt out if he’s not on the opening day roster.)
“We want him on the team,” Baker said of the 35-year-old reliever. “It’s up to ... there’s some contractual stuff that I don’t understand, don’t need to understand.”
Assuming Belisle makes it, the Nationals then would have only one available job in their bullpen for Burnett (who has an April 1 opt-out clause in his minor league contract), Treinen or Gott (who both have options and can be sent back and forth to Triple-A all season if needed).
The one caveat to that: The Nationals could actually open the season with eight relievers because they don’t need their fifth starter (most likely Joe Ross) until April 13.
Regardless, all 30 heathy players still in camp, plus the seven who were demoted today, will finish out the week with the Nationals, playing in their final two games in Florida and then traveling to Washington for Friday and Saturday’s exhibitions against the Twins.
The final, 25-man roster must be set no later than Sunday morning. No matter who makes that list, Baker expects all of his final cuts to contribute before 2016 is complete.
“We had not only good players, but good citizens here,” the manager said. “That makes it easy. And that commends the scouting system to me. And upstairs. Cause not only are you looking for ballplayers, but you’re looking for those that have a good attitude and aren’t going to have any trouble. That goes a long ways.”