With Washington Nationals pitchers and catchers scheduled to report Feb. 19, less than a month remains before actual baseball revs up again. The Nationals’ roster is still defined by the enormous question of whether or not they will sign Prince Fielder. (And on that front, there’s “no news” at the moment, one Nationals official said.)
The acquisition of Fielder, though, would be more of a luxury than an immediate need; the Nationals, of course, have two capable first basemen for this season in Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse. As their offseason winds down, what do the Nationals need?
Aside from a resolution to the Fielder question, the Nationals are probably finished for the offseason except perhaps bringing in a few more minor league free agents to compete in spring training. Manager Davey Johnson said late last week he feels comfortable with the roster as is.
Johnson knows the questions he’ll want to sort out once spring training begins in less than a month. In the rotation, the addition of Gio Gonzalez left Johnson with an extra starter and a difficult decision: whether to send Ross Detwiler or John Lannan to the bullpen.
“With adding Gio, I have six starters, basically,” Johnson said. “One’s got to go to the ’pen. That’s one of my big concerns: who I’m going to have in the ’pen.”
Because of Chien-Ming Wang’s injury history, Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit and the attrition every rotation faces, the Nationals likely won’t trade either Lannan or Detwiler. Their sixth starter likely will play a key role this season, and both Lannan and Detwiler are qualified to begin the year in the rotation.
Detwiler has no options remaining, which precludes him from starting the year in Syracuse. Lannan, meantime, will make at least $5 million in arbitration. It’s hard to imagine the Nationals starting a pitcher with Lannan’s track record and a $5 million salary in the bullpen.
That sixth starter creates a quandary in the bullpen, too. Johnson liked what Craig Stammen gave the Nationals at the end of last season. Before the Gonzalez trade, Johnson saw Stammen as a right-handed long reliever to go with Tom Gorzelanny, his presumed left-handed long reliever.
Now, though, Johnson will probably have a bullpen with Gorzelanny and another left-handed long man, either Detwiler or Lannan.
“Ideally, I’d like to have a little more flexibility — long right and long left,” Johnson said. “And I liked what I had out of Stammen.”
For the bench, the Nationals likely will turn to their non-roster invitees in spring training. First baseman/outfielder Mark DeRosa and catcher Jesus Flores seem to be locks on the bench. The complexion of the rest of the bench could hinge on whether Bryce Harper starts in the minors or the majors.
Roger Bernadina figures to earn a bench job, but he could become a starter if Harper begins the season at Class AAA. Steve Lombardozzi, a September call-up last year, “has the inside track” on the reserve middle infield role, Johnson said. Mike Cameron, whom the Nationals signed to a minor league deal, also has a good chance to make the bench, Johnson.
The 25th man coming out of spring training, if Harper starts at Syracuse, likely will come out of the Nationals’ non-roster invitees: There are infielders Andres Blanco, Jarrett Hoffpauir and Chad Tracy, who’s a corner infield guy as opposed to a utility infielder. In the outfield, other than Cameron, there are Brett Carroll, Jason Michaels, Xavier Paul and Corey Brown, who played last year at Class AAA Syracuse and had his September call-up cut short by an infection.
The bench seems a little thin, and if the Nationals make one non-Fielder addition, it’ll probably be a bat to augment their reserves. But from where he sits, Johnson does not see many questions to answer before opening day. That’s a far cry from cattle calls of seasons past, which Johnson considers a signal of the Nationals’ progress.
“If you really look at it, there’s only two or three spots that are going to be highly competitive,” Johnson said. “When you get in that situation, you should be able to contend, inching your way into the first-division category. If we play the way I think we’re capable of playing, you could ask anybody in the league. They’d say, ‘You can’t take them for granted.’ ”