WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The Nationals pared their roster down to 30 following today’s 4-4 exhibition tie against the Cardinals, leaving only a handful of candidates still competing for the final spots in their opening day bullpen and bench.
Right-hander Joe Ross was optioned to Triple-A Fresno, where he’ll be stretched out as a starter. Fellow starter Erick Fedde and catcher Spencer Kieboom also were optioned, though they will open the season at Double-A Harrisburg because the organization wants to keep a few experienced players closer to Washington in case a last-minute call-up is needed.
The Nationals also re-assigned five non-roster invitees to minor league camp: infielder Carter Kieboom, right-handers Henderson Alvarez III, Aaron Barrett and Scott Copeland, plus lefty Vidal Nuño III.
Those moves bring more clarity to the final roster competitions still being decided this spring. Assuming three players still on the roster open the season on the injured list (Howie Kendrick, Michael A. Taylor, Koda Glover), there appear to be three remaining position players competing for two spots on the bench (Adrián Sanchez, Andrew Stevenson, Jake Noll) and four remaining relievers competing for three spots in the bullpen (Kyle Barraclough, Justin Miller, Wander Suero, Austen Williams).
Sanchez and Stevenson are seemingly favorites to fill out the bench, unless club officials are willing to take a chance on Noll, a 2016 draft pick who has yet to play above Double-A and isn’t on the 40-man roster but has impressed this spring with a .319 batting average, two homers, nine RBIs and .928 OPS over 52 plate appearances.
Barraclough, Miller and Suero all opened camp as favorites to make the bullpen, but Williams’ dominant spring (the right-hander has retired 22-of-24 batters, including all four he faced today) has convinced the Nationals to consider bringing him north.
“I liked Austen when he came up last year as well,” said manager Davey Martinez of the 26-year-old, who made 10 appearances for the Nats last September. “He honed in on his mechanics and consistency with throwing strikes, which is a big part of what we wanted him to do. And he’s had an unbelievable spring. I really believe that he’s only going to get better.”
One other potential scenario: The Nationals could open the season with an eight-man bullpen, keeping all of those relievers, and a four-man bench.
The decision not to include Ross and Fedde on the opening day roster was not a surprise; once the Nats re-signed veteran Jeremy Hellickson to be their No. 5 starter, both young right-handers knew they were destined to begin the season in the minors. The decision to send Ross to Triple-A and Fedde to Double-A, though, is somewhat revealing.
After losing their longstanding Triple-A affiliation with Syracuse, the Nationals wound up losing a game of musical chairs with several other organization and were left with Fresno as their new top affiliate. Given the lack of direct flights from that remote California locale, club officials wanted to keep at least a few experienced players closer to Washington.
In the end, they decided to send Ross to Fresno, where he’ll start every fifth day. And they decided to send Fedde to Harrisburg, where he’ll start every fifth day and be on call if the Nationals need a last-minute substitution in the big leagues.
The same applies to Spencer Kieboom, who despite being higher up the organizational catching depth chart than Raudy Read (who previously was optioned to Triple-A) will open the season at Double-A so he can be nearby in case veterans Yan Gomes or Kurt Suzuki get hurt.
“We explained this to them,” Martinez said. “This is just a move that we need to make, being that Fresno is so far. If we need a catcher, he’s fairly close. And also if we need another pitcher, Fedde is fairly close as well.”
The other players re-assigned to minor league camp today haven’t officially been placed on any affiliate’s roster yet, but Alvarez figures to join Ross in Fresno’s rotation. Nuño also could be part of that starting group, though the lefty has relief experience as well.
Carter Kieboom, the organization’s top infield prospect, turned heads in his first big-league camp. He’ll now work on honing his defensive skills at both shortstop and second base.
“He understands what he needs to do,” Martinez said of the 21-year-old. “He doesn’t have to be told to hit the ball the other way to get guys over. He does it. Asking him to go over and play second base, he did it kind of naturally. He still needs a lot of work on turning double plays from that side, but he looked really comfortable and he started getting more comfortable the more he played over there. For me, it’s just a matter of time before you see Carter Kieboom helping us in the big leagues.”
Barrett and Copeland will pitch in relief at either Triple-A or Double-A. For Barrett, it’s another important step in his attempted return to the majors four years after he tore his elbow ligament and needed Tommy John surgery, only to break his arm one year later in the final stages of his rehab.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Martinez said. “Besides his story, just getting to know the person, it’s just incredible to see. Here’s a guy who everybody thought was out of baseball. ... I really believe somewhere down the line, he’s going to help us. And I think he feels that same way. There’s no doubt he’s going to be back.”