WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - We are down, if you can believe this, to the final seven days of spring training.
Yep, one week from now the Nationals will be home in Washington, getting settled into their digs for the season and preparing to face the Twins in one last exhibition game on South Capitol Street before heading out to Cincinnati for opening day.
Which means it’s crunch time down here in Florida. All those decisions that have been looming for five weeks? It’s about time to make them. All that time rehabbing players had to prepare for the season? It has just about run out.
So this seems like a good time to step back and figure out what exactly the Nationals still need to figure out before they break camp. There’s actually more still on the docket than you might have expected from a camp that didn’t seem to have that many questions at the outset ...
Who’s the No. 5 starter?
We knew this was going to be among the most important decisions of the spring, but we didn’t know how Mike Rizzo would throw a wrench into the proceedings with barely more than a week to go. What looked like a simple competition between A.J. Cole and Erick Fedde (with Edwin Jackson and Tommy Milone also around just in case) has been complicated by the recent signing of Jeremy Hellickson to a minor league contract.
Common sense says the Nats signed Hellickson to be their fifth starter, and that he wouldn’t have signed the deal if he didn’t have reason to believe the job would be his. But in reality, there is no guarantee attached to the contract. And given how well Cole pitched Sunday - one run, six strikeouts in four innings - maybe this isn’t a foregone conclusion after all.
If nothing else, both guys will get a chance to start Friday night in split-squad games, making one final case for that open spot behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark. Fedde, meanwhile, almost certainly is headed to Triple-A Syracuse, with Jackson and Milone probably joining him in the Chiefs rotation.
Who’s the No. 2 catcher?
All offseason we wondered if the Nationals were going to try to find a new No. 1 catcher, bumping Matt Wieters from the job. But no such addition came, and Wieters has since enjoyed a fantastic spring. Under the tutelage of new hitting coach Kevin Long, the veteran switch-hitter is batting .368 (7-for-19) and making far more solid contact than he did last season.
So the question now is who will back up Wieters? Pedro Severino has long been viewed as the in-house answer, but he has not had a particularly good spring (he’s 3-for-21 with a .360 OPS). Miguel Montero (4-for-20, .670 OPS) hasn’t hit much either but has been given more opportunities to catch the Nationals’ regular starters, suggesting he’s in the lead for the job.
With Severino still holding one more option and Raudy Read suspended for the first 80 games of the season, the smart move for the Nationals probably is to keep Montero, send Severino to Syracuse and make sure they have a viable No. 3 catcher ready to jump in if needed.
How will the bullpen shake out?
This has turned into perhaps the most complicated roster decision of camp. We know Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler are locks. We also know, based on their guaranteed major league contracts, that Joaquin Benoit and Shawn Kelley are making the roster (if healthy, which they both appear to be).
That leaves two, maybe three open spots, depending on whether the Nats keep a seven-man or eight-man bullpen to begin the season. There are four lefties in the mix: Sammy Solís (two runs allowed in seven innings, but he has an option), Matt Grace (three earned runs in nine innings, out of options), Enny Romero (seven earned runs in six innings, out of options) and Tim Collins (three earned runs in 7 1/3 innings, on a minor league contract).
Romero has been the most disappointing of the bunch. Collins (a two-time Tommy John surgery recipient) has been the most surprising of the group.
Then there are right-handers Trevor Gott (zero earned runs in eight innings), Austin L. Adams (three earned runs in 4 2/3 innings) and Christopher Smith (one earned run in 6 2/3 innings) trying to squeeze their way in.
And don’t forget about Cole, who given his lack of options could be kept as a long reliever if Hellickson takes the final spot in the rotation.
Who will take Daniel Murphy’s spot on the roster?
Though the Nationals refuse to outright say it, there’s virtually no chance Murphy will be ready to begin the season on the active roster. The veteran second baseman, who had microfracture knee surgery in October, has only been able to take batting practice and field grounders, not play in any game situations.
Murphy’s 2018 debut may not be delayed that much, but the Nats will need to figure out who’s replacing him in the short-term. Howie Kendrick (8-for-22, .878 OPS) has been far more productive at the plate this spring than Wilmer Difo (6-for-41, .357 OPS) and figures to be the first choice to start at second base.
Difo will make the club regardless as a backup infielder, but there’s still another roster spot that would normally have gone to Murphy. The Nationals could decide to use that spot on an eighth reliever, or they could keep a fifth bench player.
The candidates: infielders Matt Reynolds (7-for-31, .797 OPS), Adrian Sanchez (4-for-24, .439 OPS), Reid Brignac (4-for-22, .639 OPS) or Chris Dominguez (13-for-37, 1.027 OPS), or outfielders Andrew Stevenson (10-for-41, .726 OPS), Moisés Sierra (14-for-40, .947 OPS) or Ryan Raburn (1-for-18, .206 OPS).
(If you’re wondering why Victor Robles wasn’t included in that group, Rizzo has made it clear the 20-year-old outfielder will be an everyday player, whether in Washington or Syracuse.)