Would you believe it’s the final week of spring training? That’s right. The Nationals have only seven more days in West Palm Beach, Fla., before heading north. Opening night is tantalizingly close now.
The question, of course, is: Are the Nats ready? And the answer is: not quite. There are several matters that still need to be sorted out before the end of camp. Players must prove they deserve to make the roster. The front office and coaching staff must decide who makes it and who doesn’t. And even those whose jobs are secure have something on the agenda over these final seven days.
So let’s run through the most important matters that still need to be resolved ...
* Get players returning from injury enough work
The Nationals, for the most part, are pretty healthy at this stage of the spring. Will Harris’ blood clot is a significant problem, and a few marginal players are still in the rehab process from various injuries. But nearly everyone who would make the 26-man roster is healthy. There are a few guys, though, who have been delayed this spring by minor injuries and now face a sprint to get themselves in shape in time. Stephen Strasburg had a little hiccup with a strained left calf. Jon Lester is building up his pitch count following his parathyroid surgery. Tanner Rainey just finally made his first game appearance of the spring and needs to get ready in a hurry. Gerardo Parra is still working his way back from knee surgery. This final week will be important for all those players if they want to enter the season as close to 100 percent as possible.
* Get slumping hitters going at the plate
Did you know Juan Soto and Trea Turner have combined for zero RBIs this spring? Seriously. Soto doesn’t even have an extra-base hit, and Turner only has one (a double). Nobody’s actually worried these two stars aren’t going to hit this season, but they’d certainly like to start stringing a few hits together before opening night. Of greater concern is Carter Kieboom, batting .171/.216/.286 in 13 games. The young third baseman has doubles in his last two games, so that’s a start. But if anybody needs to leave Florida feeling good about himself, it’s Kieboom.
* Get top relievers into form
This has not been a great spring for the Nationals bullpen as a whole. Harris is now dealing with a blood clot. Rainey is trying to play catch-up in short order. And Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson have struggled on the mound. Relievers are notoriously the toughest ballplayers to judge based on spring performances, but you’d really like to see them start to look like the best versions of themselves during the home stretch. Hand and Hudson could use a couple of clean innings each, and Rainey could use multiple positive outings to prove he’ll be good to go come next Thursday night.
* Settle on a batting order
We still don’t know how exactly Davey Martinez is going to line his guys up on opening night, but the manager has given us a pretty clear hint what he’d like to do. Victor Robles has led off all 13 games he’s played this spring, and he’s looked good doing it. And though Martinez has tried out different combinations behind Robles, he does seem to prefer Soto batting ahead of Turner, Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber. It’s a bit of an unconventional look, but it has real merits. It’s time to decide if this is the lineup or not, though. If it’s not, Martinez needs to settle on a different order ASAP and give everyone time to get used to it.
* Decide whether to keep a fifth bench player or ninth reliever
The final decision of the spring probably involves the final spot on the 26-man roster. And though there’s competition among several bench candidates and several bullpen candidates, they’re also all competing with each other. Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo have to decide if they want a deeper bench or a deeper bullpen. Ideally, they’d prefer a five-man bench and eight-man bullpen, which would benefit someone like Hernán Pérez, Jordy Mercer, Yadiel Hernández or Parra. But if they’re concerned about pitchers’ workloads early in the season, they might feel compelled to keep a ninth reliever. That could benefit someone like Erick Fedde, Javy Guerra, Kyle McGowin, Luis Avilán or Sam Clay.