As he emerged from the dugout at Nationals Park this afternoon and scanned the group of players assembling for one cobbled together workout in advance of Tuesday’s rescheduled season opener, Davey Martinez could’ve chosen to focus on who wasn’t there.
Anyone who knows Martinez, though, knows that’s not how his mind operates. Ever the optimist, the fourth-year Nationals manager focused instead on who was there. It’s not the roster he ever expected to be throwing out there on opening day, but it’ll have to do for now. And he’s not going to hold it to any lesser standard than the one he thought he’d have before a COVID-19 outbreak dramatically altered his plans.
As Martinez put it: “This is who we are.”
Yes, this is who the Nationals are, for now. They haven’t officially set their 26-man roster for Tuesday afternoon’s opener against the Braves, nor their 27-man roster for Wednesday’s 14-inning doubleheader that was just announced by Major League Baseball. But today’s workout at Nationals Park, the first open to the media since the club returned from spring training, offered the fullest picture yet about the state of this ballclub on the eve of the 2021 season.
The team hasn’t formally revealed which four players tested positive for COVID-19 and are still in isolation, nor which seven players and two staff members remain in quarantine because they were deemed close contacts to the others. It is now clear, though, the list includes a lot of prominent players, most of them veterans.
Asked if it’s possible he’ll be filing out a lineup card Tuesday missing five players who would’ve been in in his original batting order, Martinez paused, thought it through in his head and smiled.
“It is possible,” he said during his Zoom session with reporters. “We’re going to make it work. The last two days, I saw a lot of energy in these guys. Especially the young guys. ... These guys are going to be ready to play. They’ll step up.”
The Nationals appear to have been hit hardest in the infield and behind the plate. The six infielders who went through drills this afternoon were Ryan Zimmerman at first base, Luis García and Carter Kieboom at second base, Hernán Pérez and Adrián Sanchez at shortstop, and Starlin Castro at third base. (Martinez later said García will likely start at second base in the opener.)
Zimmerman, who has anticipated a reduced role all along as Bell’s backup, could now find himself starting three games in 24 hours to open the season.
“I’m just preparing to play and be ready to go,” the longest tenured player in the organization said. “I don’t think this is going to be a long, long-term thing. I can play every day for the short-term. I’m still capable of doing that. And I think Davey’s smart about that as well. He’s not going to run me into the ground the first however many days of the season.
The only catchers present at today’s workout were Tres Barrera and Raudy Read, who combined have taken 24 plate appearances in the major leagues. Jonathan Lucroy, though, could wind up starting Tuesday and working with Max Scherzer as long as the 34-year-old veteran’s PCR saliva test comes back negative after he signed a minor league deal with the club over the weekend.
“It’s definitely going to be challenging, but he’s known Max for years,” Martinez said of Lucroy, who has 11 big league seasons with seven clubs and spent this spring in White Sox camp. “Obviously, he hasn’t caught him. He’s talked to Max already. ... I think he’s going to be fine.”
The Nationals rotation was missing two veteran lefties as well today (Corbin and Lester), so it’s quite possible Erick Fedde and Austin Voth will be asked to make starts at some point in the near future. But everyone will have peace of mind knowing Scherzer is taking the ball on opening day and Stephen Strasburg will start one of Wednesday’s seven-inning games.
“You just have to take this in stride and understand what’s going on,” Scherzer said. “We respect all the decisions that have been made, and I think we made the best decision to play tomorrow, so ... that’s all we can do. I get the ball tomorrow. I’m happy.”
The only prominent name missing from the bullpen ranks today was Hand, the seasoned left-hander who was expected to open the season as the team’s primary closer. But with Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero and Kyle Finnegan anchoring an eight-man unit, the relief corps should be able to handle these next few days (provided Scherzer and Strasburg can provide length in their starts).
The domino effect also will be felt on the bench, which it appears will include outfielders Yadiel Hernández and Cody Wilson, the former a 33-year-old who briefly made his major league debut last September, the latter a speedy 24-year-old who has never played above low Single-A.
All this group now has to do is play the Braves three times in 24 hours, then head west to face the Dodgers and Cardinals during a daunting opening stretch to a season that has presented unexpected challenges already.
As Martinez said: This is who they are.