Desperate for fresh arms who could help them navigate their way through a week that has seen three starters get knocked out early, the Nationals made another roster move today while continuing to map out a pitching plan for the weekend and beyond.
The Nats promoted Steven Fuentes from their alternate training site in Fredericksburg, summoning the 23-year-old right-hander now in case he’s needed during tonight’s game against the Cardinals. Ryne Harper, who pitched each of the last two days, was optioned to the Fredericksburg camp to clear space on the active roster.
Fuentes is hardly a big-name addition to the staff. He currently ranks 22nd on the Nationals’ prospect list, according to MLBPipeline.com and he has never pitched above Double-A. But club officials have grown increasingly fond of him the last two years and decided to add him to their 40-man roster over the winter, giving him an invitation to big league camp this spring.
“He’s very excited to be here,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He’s a 23-year-old kid. He’s got really good stuff. He’s a strike-thrower. He’s always around the zone, so I’m looking forward to watching him pitch.”
A starter by trade, Fuentes recently threw 85 or so pitches in Fredericksburg, according to Martinez. For now, the Nationals will use the Panama native (signed in 2013 for $35,000) out of the bullpen, potentially as a long relief option tonight should Patrick Corbin once again labor.
That’s a short-term patch for a pitching staff in need of long-term reinforcements. One could be coming soon, assuming Jon Lester made it through today’s simulated game in Fredericksburg with no issues.
Lester, who was cleared to leave quarantine last week but still needed to build his arm up before being activated off the COVID-19-related injury list, pitched for the second time at the alternate camp earlier today. Martinez didn’t know specifics about the left-hander’s outing yet when he spoke to reporters via Zoom at 3 p.m., but Lester was scheduled to throw five innings and 80 or so pitches.
If Lester is deemed ready to go after this final tune-up, he could join the Nationals rotation early next week. That said, the club could try to take advantage of four off-days on the schedule in the next three weeks (Thursday, Monday, April 29, May 3) and utilize a four-man rotation for the time being.
Such a decision may hinge on how Corbin performs tonight against the Cardinals. If he shows signs of progress, the Nats could proceed with him as one of their four starters (along with Max Scherzer, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde) and give Lester more time to build himself up. If not, they may feel the need either to activate Lester or perhaps to give Paolo Espino (who made an emergency start Sunday in place of the injured Stephen Strasburg) another chance to pitch.
“With all the days off, (pitching coach Jim) Hickey and I have been jotting things down of how this rotation would like,” Martinez said. “So we haven’t come up with anything definitive yet; we’ll wait until tomorrow. But we’ve been working on different things the last couple days, so we’ll have some kind of a rotation. If not, we’ll know who’s going to pitch on Friday (at the Mets) tomorrow.”
One other potential pitching option in Fredericksburg is no longer available to the Nationals: Seth Romero suffered a rib injury while throwing a pitch last week and will be out “for a while,” according to Martinez.
Romero, the organization’s first-round pick in 2017, made a brief major league debut last summer but otherwise has seen his career derailed by injuries and other mishaps. The left-hander was sent home from his first spring training for violating team rules. He then missed the entire 2019 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Healthy in 2020, he was called up to make his major league debut and appeared in three games for the Nationals before slipping on a staircase and breaking his right hand.