The Nationals began spring training this week carrying the expectations of a World Series contender, an already talented team last season improved by this offseason’s moves. Perhaps the best rotation in baseball added a veteran starter in Dan Haren. One of National League’s most powerful lineups when healthy traded for an everyday leadoff hitter in Denard Span. The solid bullpen added the best closer available in Rafael Soriano. Even by early January, this team’s roster was nearly completely set.
Fans, however, will remember that the Nationals are only a few years removed from seasons when Odalis Perez was signed a week before 2008 opening day and was the game’s starter. Or when the Nationals reported to camp in Viera, Fla., and team officials had almost two teams worth of players fighting for 40 spots, many with a realistic chance of earning one. Or even two years ago when the final two spots to be decided on the team in March were down to Roger Bernadina, Alberto Gonzalez, Alex Cora, Matt Stairs and Laynce Nix. This year, the Nationals have doled out only 14 non-roster invitations, their 40-man roster already in good shape.
One of the biggest themes of this season’s spring training will be depth. It’ll be a word repeated many times, as it was already a focus this offseason by General Manager Mike Rizzo. It’s a long and arduous season and injuries are bound to happen, much like the rash of them suffered by a handful of starting players last season. And that the Nationals starting rotation suffered no injuries last season is an anomaly. The best way to play for injuries is to build depth throughout the organization, in particular at Class AAA. Fielding a strong team at Syracuse protects against major league injuries.
For depth, Rizzo and Co. signed a handful of arms this winter such as starter Ross Ohlendorf and lefty reliever Bill Bray to compete for spots and provide depth along with players already in the system such as Christian Garcia, Yunesky Maya, Tanner Roark and Cole Kimball, as well as prospects returning from injury such as Sammy Solis, Matt Purke and Lucas Giolito. But, in a sense, some of these players will be fighting for spots that don’t even exist.
With the addition of Soriano, Garcia’s planned conversion to a starter as he is stretched out this spring seems more likely, as well as a stint in Syracuse. In other words, a spot on the major league roster is much tougher to come by now. If the Nationals are comfortable with carrying only one left-handed reliever on the active roster and relying on their right-handers’ strong splits against lefties, then Bray may not have a spot on the active roster. But consider the alternative of having to make these decisions: deciding on the final few spots on the roster and not plugging major holes is a much more enviable position than the one the Nationals were in not long ago.
Here’s a look at the Nationals’ probable 40-man roster as it stands now, with the bullpen the most likely to change before opening day, and the depth behind it:
LINEUP (9): Denard Span, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Kurt Suzuki DEPTH: the bench and their back-ups
ROTATION (5): Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Dan Haren DEPTH: Zach Duke, Craig Stammen, Christian Garcia, Ryan Perry, Nathan Karns, Yunesky Maya, Ross Ohlendorf, Tanner Roark
BULLPEN (7): Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Ryan Mattheus, Craig Stammen, Zach Duke, Henry Rodriguez DEPTH: Bill Bray, Cole Kimball, Erik Davis, Christian Garcia, Fernando Abad, Will Ohman, Patrick McCoy, Jeremy Accardo
BENCH (5): Wilson Ramos. Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi, Chad Tracy DEPTH: Will Rhymes, Carlos Rivero, Anthony Rendon, Corey Brown, Eury Perez, Zach Walters, Chris Marrero, Sandy Leon, Jhonatan Solano, Chris Snyder, Carlos Maldonado, Micah Owings, Matt Skole
FROM TODAY’S POST
A confident Gio Gonzalez says he’s “never taken performance-enhancing drugs,” writes Adam Kilgore.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL