The Nationals made a flurry of transactions this afternoon that provided clarity to their opening day 25-man roster – a roster likely to include four non-roster free agents and a Rule 5 pick.
The Nationals optioned outfielder Roger Bernadina and reliever Collin Balester to Class AAA Syracuse. They also placed Rule 5 pick Elvin Ramirez and Chien-Ming Wang on the 60-day disabled list and sent reliever Henry Rodriguez to the 15-day disabled list.
By sending down Bernadina and Balester, the Nationals handed their fourth outfield spot to Laynce Nix and their final bullpen spot to Brian Broderick, a 24-year-old Rule 5 pick.
The moves slashed the Nationals’ major-league camp to 26 players. The only decision remaining is between Alex Cora and Alberto Gonzalez for the utility infield position. The Nationals will most likely either trade Gonzalez or cut him in order to give the job to Cora.
The Nationals’ initial 25-man roster, then, will likely include non-roster invitees Matt Stairs, Chad Gaudin, Nix and Cora and Broderick, their second-round Rule 5 pick. The moves, particularly choosing Nix over Bernadina, suggest the Nationals chose to build a veteran-laded team in 2011.
“We feel like they both can play pretty good left field,” Manager Jim Riggleman said of Nix and Bernadina. “Roger’s speed is not matched by too many people here, but also in the game. We were kind of looking for the veteran guy. Once we decided on [Rick] Ankiel in center and [Michael] Morse in left, we were looking for more a veteran guy there to pinch hit.
“Also, [the Nationals wanted] Roger to go play everyday. That has as much to do with it as anything. We still think Roger has a chance to be a 450 to 550 at-bat guy. So rather than starting off the season with him getting four, five at-bats a week, we’re going to send him down there and let him play.”
Bernadina is younger (26 to 30) and homegrown, and sometimes he makes you think he could be a star. But he also had a 461-plate appearance audition last year in which he hit .246/.307/.384 with 11 home runs, 35 walks and 93 strikeouts. He can make spectacular plays, but he also makes some curious ones.
Nix, like Bernadina, can play all three outfield spots. Last year in 182 plate appearances in a reserve role, Nix hit .291/.350/.455. Riggleman said the Nationals could have sent Nix to minors based on the terms of his contract. The Nationals simply decided Nix fit the role better.
“Roger is a very respectful young man, a class act, but he was disappointed,” Riggleman said. “And rightfully so. Roger knows he’s a big league ballplayer. We’ve sent a lot of guys over to minor league camp this year who could help us. Roger has played a significant amount of games with us, so it’s tougher for Roger.”
In the bullpen, Broderick went from a “longshot,” Riggleman said, to part of the opening day roster with his strong spring training. “He’s pitched himself on to the team,” Riggleman said. “He answered the call throughout. He really opened a lot of eyes here.”
The victim was Balester, who followed his strong finish in 2010 with a superlative spring. Balester allowed two earned runs in 11 1/3 innings, striking out 11 and walking two. Both Riggleman and General Manager Mike Rizzo told Balester his demotion had less to do with his performance than the state of the roster.
“We just reassured him, he pitched his way on to the ball club,” Riggleman said. “We’ve got some other situation where we would lose some people. We’re confident at some point we’ll have to call on Bally and he’ll have to help us. He didn’t pitch himself off the ball club.”