Why we shouldn’t make too big a deal out of the opening day roster

VIERA, Fla. - Monday’s flurry of transactions moved the Nationals closer to finalizing their opening day roster, but they didn’t completely settle the matter. If anything, the club now faces a couple of really difficult decisions in rounding out its bench and bullpen.

“I wish we could carry 27, 28 guys, but you can’t,” manager Dusty Baker said. “Whoever it is, it’s going to be tough. Because players have fans. They all have fans. One way or another, it’s probably not a very popular decision either way. But there’s more to it than just how they perform. There’s a lot of factors involved.”

Dusty-Baker-spring-sidebar.jpgIndeed, and this is probably the most difficult aspect of opening day roster construction for some to understand. It’s not as simple as picking the best 25 players at the end of camp and sticking them on a charter flight north.

It’s about picking the 25 guys who best fit with each other. It’s about making sure every position on the field is covered several times over in case of injuries or any other developments that could throw a manager’s best-laid plans out of whack during the course of a ballgame.

And, above all else, it’s about building a organizational roster that well exceeds 25, with plenty of depth waiting in the minor leagues to be called upon when the need arises.

And the need will arise. It always does. Rarely does a team make it more than a couple of weeks into April before summoning its first call-up from Triple-A. And inevitably someone who makes the opening day roster ends up getting dropped early on, often never to be heard from again.

How many of you honestly remember the following members of various Nationals opening day rosters: Xavier Cedeno (2015), Brett Carroll (2012), Brian Broderick (2011), Jesse English (2010), Wil Ledezma (2009), Josh Wilson (2007) and J.J. Davis (2005)?

In every one of those cases, the player earned one of the final spots on the 25-man roster after an impressive spring. And in every one of those cases, the player no longer was on the roster come May, nor at any point later that season.

Don’t we all make too big a deal out of the opening day roster?

“It’s going to change,” Baker said. “But everybody wants to be on the opening day roster. Nobody likes to be sent down. Most of these guys, it might be the first time they’ve been sent down in their whole life. And sometimes it might appear as a cut, but it’s not really a cut. But the guys that don’t make the cut, they’ve been here long enough to see that it really takes about 40 guys before the year’s over with. I’ve never been on a club where we ended with the same 25 we started with, or even went halfway.”

This is where younger players who still have options (they can unilaterally be demoted to the minors without other clubs having a chance to claim them) often are at a disadvantage come the final week of March. This year, the disadvantaged guys might well end up being outfielder Matt den Dekker and relievers Blake Treinen and Trevor Gott, who could open the year in Syracuse while veterans who are out of options (such as multiple names from the group of Brendan Ryan, Chris Heisey, Reed Johnson, Sean Burnett and Matt Belisle) get to go to Atlanta for opening day.

The key point to remember, both for the players involved and for fans keeping track of it all at home, is that a whole lot of guys who don’t make the opening day roster still end up playing major roles for a club during the course of a full year.

“This is just step one in the process of making the team all season,” Baker said.

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