Nationals spring training has lacked even the mildest intrigue in regard to the complexion of the opening day roster, but some uncertainty may have arrived Monday night about the final spot in Washington’s bullpen.
Henry Rodriguez took the mound one day after Manager Davey Johnson rested him with minor inflammation in his elbow. He began his outing with seven consecutive balls before he recovered for a scoreless inning. Two frames later, veteran left-handed reliever J.C. Romero, freshly signed to a minor league contract, fired a 1-2-3 inning with a strikeout.
Afterward, Johnson did not rule out the possibility of Rodriguez beginning the season on the disabled list. Of Romero, Johnson said with a grin, “he looked ready to me.” It does not take much effort to read between those lines and deduce the Nationals are at least considering putting a second left-hander in their bullpen to start the season.
Rodriguez missed the final half of 2012 after he underwent surgery to remove a bone chip from his throwing elbow. He felt tenderness in his biceps at the start of spring training, which set back his schedule. The inflammation over the weekend was another speed bump.
Rodriguez is out of minor league options, which means the Nationals would surely lose him to another team if they tried to send him to the minors. When asked if Rodriguez may start the year on the disabled list, Johnson mostly danced around the question.
“He was out the whole last half of the year,” Johnson said. “He didn’t have any winter ball. He had the operation. He’s going to take some time. I think his arm is feeling pretty good. But power pitchers always have a problem, every spring I’ve ever had them. But what he went through over the winter, he’s behind everybody. He’ll get it. When he throws it over, he’s nasty.”
And so, if he’s behind, is it possible he begins the year on the disabled list?
“We’re not at that point yet,” Johnson said. “If I have to get him some extra work, going back-to-back, I might do that, have him pitch in one of those games” in minor league camp.
Not a yes. But exactly a no, either.
During the game, Rodriguez pitched a scoreless inning that encapsulated his binary tendencies. His seven consecutive balls included one that nearly decapitated leadoff hitter Rick Ankiel. “Henry had me worried again,” Johnson said, laughing.
Rodriguez then found the strike and retired the Astros with two strikeouts and a foul pop next to third base. His velocity was down at first – one scout clocked his fastball at 91 mph to start the inning. By the end, though, it had climbed back to 95-96 mph.
“He threw the ball good,” Johnson said. “He threw the ball a lot better.”
Two innings later, Romero jogged in from the bullpen to make his Nationals spring debut. Romero had worked 5 2/3 innings for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, which he said “is pretty much playoff intensity. The execution on your pitches, you have to be right on point.”
Monday night, Romero threw his fastball between 87 and 90 mph, according to one scout behind home plate. (Romero suggested the 87-mph radar-gun reading came on a 3-0 cutter.) Even though General Manager Mike Rizzo said it was not realistic for Romero to start the year on the major league roster, he looked like a pitcher who could take the mound in the regular season.
“I feel ready,” Romero said. “I feel healthy.”
If the Nationals choose to shelve Rodriguez at the start of the year, though, Romero would not be an automatic choice. Lefty Fernando Abad has impressed both Nationals officials and rival evaluators, allowing two runs over seven innings this spring, striking out eight and walking two.
The next week will answer who lands the last relief spot. It took much longer to even raise the question.
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DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY