As they took the field (in small groups, staggered over the entire day) for the first time in nearly four months, the Nationals revealed more adjustments to their 60-man roster pool for summer training and the upcoming season, with another veteran opting out and another young prospect joining the group.
Welington Castillo, the veteran catcher who had been in spring training as a non-roster invitee, informed club officials he will decline to participate this season, not wanting to risk his family’s health. The Nationals will use that spot in their 60-man pool on right-hander Cade Cavalli, their first-round pick from last month’s draft.
Castillo becomes the third known Nationals player to opt out of the 2020 season, joining star first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and right-hander Joe Ross. Only two other players across the majors at this point have announced their plans not to participate this season: Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond and Diamondbacks right-hander Mike Leake.
As they did with both Zimmerman and Ross, Nationals officials expressed full support for Castillo’s decision not to play.
“He’s got two little kids and his wife in the Dominican (Republic),” manager Davey Martinez said in his first Zoom conference call with reporters of camp. “I don’t hold anything against those guys. They have family. I know Zim, I love him to death. Joe, he’s a big part of this organization. They all are. They chose to opt out, and we have guys that are here that we’ve got to focus on right now and get them ready for the 2020 season.”
General manager Mike Rizzo, who didn’t speak directly with Castillo, praised the players who made the difficult choice not to report to camp and forgo their salaries this year.
“Those are tough decisions, kind of courageous decisions in my mind,” Rizzo said. “The easy path is to try to grind it out and take your chances. ... These decisions were tough for them. We certainly didn’t try to talk them out of it, by any way, shape or form. We supported them greatly and admire them for it, because these were tough decisions.”
Cavalli, who traveled to Washington on Thursday and was tested for COVID-19 today, joins a growing list of young pitching prospects who have been invited to join big league camp and then continue to work out during the abbreviated season with the club’s supplemental roster (most likely in Fredericksburg). The Oklahoma right-hander, the 22nd overall pick last month, will be pitching alongside 2019 first-round pick Jackson Rutledge and 2017 first-round pick Seth Romero, both also invited so they can work during a year in which there is no minor league season.
The opt-outs leave the Nationals with 58 players in camp (36 off the 40-man roster, plus 22 non-roster invitees). Rizzo said they’ll leave those spots open for now, with the possibility of adding players from outside or inside the organization later on as needs develop.
Rizzo and Martinez said all 58 are expected to be healthy and cleared to participate fully in camp, though many players are still waiting for results of their COVID-19 tests before they can take the field.
Those who are working out are doing so in small position groups spread throughout the day to allow for social distancing. Martinez said the first group was on the field at 7:45 a.m. The final group will be out there at 5:30 p.m.
“It’s going to be a long day,” said the manager, who will be present for all workouts while other members of the coaching staff take shifts.
Though it’s the first day of camp, players appear to be reporting closer to in-season form than they normally would arriving for spring training. Max Scherzer - to nobody’s surprise - threw 65 pitches to live hitters this morning. Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Will Harris all threw off bullpen mounds.
The club has three weeks to prepare for a planned 60-game sprint of a season, and they won’t have much opportunity to practice game situations.
Martinez said the plan for now is hold five days of workouts, then begin some intrasquad scrimmages. The Nationals are hoping to schedule up to the maximum three exhibition games allowed by Major League Baseball (most likely against the Orioles or the team they’ll face on opening day) but that hasn’t been finalized yet.
Roster decisions ultimately will have to be based less on game performance than track record and the evaluation of workout performances.
“The important thing is we came into spring training 2.0 in good shape,” Rizzo said. “We got guys first day of camp ... Some of the guys we saw today look like they have been pitching quite a bit on their own under the guidance of (pitching coach) Paul Menhart. We feel that they are much closer to game-ready than they would have coming into a normal spring training because of the game plan we had during this absence.”