FORT MYERS, Fla. - The Nationals plan for both Tony Sipp and Howie Kendrick to hold significant roles on their roster this season. The question, with two weeks to go, is whether either will be on the opening day roster.
Sipp, whose signing of a one-year contract with a mutual option for 2020 was officially announced today, has thrown only one bullpen session so far, according to manager Davey Martinez, who spoke with the veteran lefty this morning in West Palm Beach before the Nationals boarded their bus for today’s road game.
Sipp will need to continue throwing off the mound and probably face live hitters in a simulated game before he makes his Grapefruit League debut. Martinez also wants him to prove he can pitch in back-to-back games before joining the active roster. The club’s final exhibition game is in 11 days, so that’s a tight window for Sipp to get the requisite work in.
“My biggest thing with him is back-to-back days,” Martinez said. “For a bullpen guy, getting those guys ready to pitch back-to-back days is key. So when he can do that, he’ll be ready to go.”
Sipp posted a 1.86 ERA and 1.034 WHIP last season for the Astros while holding left-handed hitters to a .191 batting average and .557 OPS. He had good numbers against righties as well, and Martinez said he won’t be afraid to use the 35-year-old against hitters from both sides of the plate.
Sipp’s primary purpose on the roster, though, will be to get big left-handed hitters out, and with Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman and Robinson Canó on opposing National League East teams, there should be ample opportunities all season.
That includes early April, with the Nationals facing the Mets and Phillies exclusively in their first 11 games. But if the club doesn’t believe Sipp is ready, he won’t be part of the roster on opening day.
“The last thing I want to do is try to push him to get ready, and then something happens,” Martinez said. “We’re going to be very careful on how to approach him. I told him: ‘We’re glad to have you, but we want you to get ready, be healthy. We don’t want you to think you have to be ready for opening day. We just want you to get ready.’”
The Nationals also don’t want to rush Kendrick back from the hamstring strain he suffered March 5, but Martinez suggested the veteran utilityman has a better chance of making it back in time for opening day than perhaps most believed.
“I’m very optimistic that he will,” the manager said. “He’s doing good. With Howie, you just don’t want to push him. He’s pushing himself. He’s working with (the club’s medical staff) every day, and they’re doing stuff that I’ve never seen before. But he said he feels great.”
Kendrick has begun running and has been hitting in the cage. Martinez said he hopes the 35-year-old will be able to start getting at-bats in minor league games next week.
Kendrick will need to be able to play in the field in a big league game before he’s cleared to make the active roster, but Martinez believes that’s still possible. In some ways, Kendrick’s more serious Achilles tendon rupture last season has helped him recover from the hamstring injury quicker.
“He worked all winter long. He’s in great shape,” Martinez said. “I think part of him coming back so quick (from the hamstring strain) is that he’s in such good shape. He’s going to be able to come back and be really ready. I told him: ‘It’s just a matter of getting you at-bats. We know you can play second base. We know you can run. Now it’s just about facing pitchers.’ We can do that all on the back fields and not have him play defense right away.”
Update: It’s been an eventful first two innings to today’s game. The Nats have come out blistering at the plate, scoring three runs in the first and two more in the second off Twins lefty Martin Pérez. Jake Noll drove in the first two with a double ripped down the third base line, scoring Victor Robles (who led off the game with a single) and Michael A. Taylor (who drew a walk). Noll then scored on Wilmer Difo’s RBI single. Robles provided the biggest blast in the top of the second, launching a towering two-run homer to left that cleared the boardwalk that sits behind the grassy berm down the line. That’s a monster blast. Erick Fedde, meanwhile, has been hit fairly hard in his first two innings, but only one run has scored. The scariest moment came when Taylor made a leaping catch of Byron Buxton’s drive to right-center. Despite making the play, Taylor appeared to get his spike caught in the turf and went down in a heap. He got back to his feet and finished out the inning, but he struggled to jog back to the dugout and did not return for the third inning. Hard to say exactly what happened, but it looked like he was favoring his left knee. We’ll see what update the Nats provide.
Update II: These guys brought their bats today. Juan Soto added to the barrage with an opposite-field, two-run homer in the top of the fifth, extending the Nationals’ lead to 7-3. Those two runs for the Twins came in the fourth off reliever Austin Voth, who allowed homers to Eddie Rosario and Mitch Garver. Fedde finished strong, striking out Marwin Gonzalez and Nelson Cruz to end the third inning. He wound up allowing one run on two hits over his three frames.
Update III: The Nats added three more runs in the seventh thanks to Noll’s RBI double, a throwing error on Twins shortstop Wander Javier and an infield single by Difo. Reliever Tanner Rainey then served up a solo homer to Trevor Larnach in the bottom of the inning, leaving the Nationals up 10-4.
Update IV: That’s a wrap. Nats win 10-4. Fedde was much improved during his three-inning start. Robles and Soto each homered. But all of that may be secondary to Taylor’s injury. Stay tuned for updates.