The carpet will still be soggy Wednesday afternoon when the Nationals arrive in Turner Field’s visitors clubhouse, the hangovers still wearing off. But Manager Matt Williams, the front office and the coaching will move on from Tuesday’s celebration quickly and start preparing for the postseason, including selecting the roster.
In every portion of the team, from how to handle Ryan Zimmerman to the starting rotation, the Nationals face hard choices. Here’s one guess at how the Nationals will make them.
1. Stephen Strasburg
2. Jordan Zimmermann
3. Doug Fister
4. Gio Gonzalez
It’s not Tanner Roark’s fault. He has gone 14-10 with a 2.85 ERA and left no doubt he was one of the Nationals’ four best starters this season. But will he be one of their best starters going forward? Roark has thrown 192 1/3 innings, about 30 more than he ever has in a professional season before. He hasn’t faded – since Aug. 1, he has a 3.12 ERA. But Williams has hesitated to stick with him late in games. Roark also has experience out of the bullpen, and his versatility and moxie make him an ideal, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency long reliever.
Roark deserved the honor of starting the Nationals’ clincher, a tribute to how much he meant to the pitching staff all season and how far he has come as a pitcher. He also deserves to be in the postseason rotation. But it’s not about who deserves what.
Gonzalez has not been one of the Nationals’ best four starters this year, but he would give the Nationals their only left-handed starter, and track record matters. He has still been one of the five or six best left-handed pitchers in baseball over the last five seasons. He has also gained confidence and rounded into form as he gets further removed from his disabled list stint, posting a 2.84 ERA in his last five starts.
It should be noted that as the Nationals’ ace in 2012, Gonzalez faltered. He allowed seven walks in a Game 1 victory that required constant escape. In Game 5, Gonzalez was given a 6-0 lead and could not last past the fifth inning, leaving with the lead whittled to 6-3.
Strasburg will likely get the ball first because has the highest ceiling of any Nationals starter. The Nationals have treated him as their unquestioned ace all season – he started opening day; he has been allowed to try to pitch out of jams late in starts; the Nationals rejiggered their rotation to let him start the first game after the all-star break. He has also been on fire lately, using more fastballs inside and seemingly grasping a better understanding of himself every start. In his past four outings, Strasburg has struck out 28, walked none and posted a 1.69 ERA.
After Strasburg, Williams faces a tricky choice between all-star Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, the Nationals’ best pitcher for most of the season, as the Game 2 starter. Really, there is not a bad answer. Everything will and should be considered.
Williams should look to match Fister against an opposing right-handed starter. The logic: Fister is more reliant on his defense than any other Nationals pitcher. If the Nationals face a lefty starter, Ryan Zimmerman will likely be in the lineup, which would give the Nationals their best offense but not their best defense.
Fister’s style could also come into play in regard to pitching him at home or on the road. Some infields are considered fast and some have longer grass that makes them slow. The quick infields would put Fister at a disadvantage, because the gobs of grounders he induces would have a better chance at sneaking into the outfield. Nationals Park is regarded as one of the best infields in baseball in terms producing true hops. The conditions in the opposing stadium may influence whether the Nationals want Fister pitching at home and on the road.
1. Drew Storen
2. Tyler Clippard
3. Matt Thornton
4. Aaron Barrett
5. Craig Stammen
6. Ross Detwiler
7. Tanner Roark
8. Rafael Soriano
The odd man out in this scenario would be Blevins, whom the Nationals acquired in December to become their top left-handed set-up man. Thornton, with his 97-mph fastball, has taken that role. Detwiler has simply been better lately than Blevins, who has a 6.10 ERA since the all-star break. Williams’s usage of Blevins has been telling: Since August began, Blevins has pitched in just four above-average leverage situations, according to Baseball-Reference’s measurement.
Soriano could pitch his way off the roster between now and Game 162. But for now, the Nationals still believe in his experience and think he can make the necessary adjustments to be used as a set-up reliever in the playoffs. The Nationals may also choose to take seven relievers and go with an 11-man pitching staff so they can hold an extra bench player. As we’ll see, there could be an odd man out on the bench, too.
1. Denard Span
2. Anthony Rendon
3. Jayson Werth
4. Adam LaRoche
5. Ian Desmond
6. Bryce Harper
7. Asdrubal Cabrera
8. Wilson Ramos
As he returns from a torn hamstring, Ryan Zimmerman’s situation is fluid. When healthy and with full timing, Zimmerman is still the Nationals’ best hitter. Will Zimmerman have both health and timing by Oct. 3? That’s something we don’t know, and that may determine how Zimmerman is used.
The Nationals have gone 28-15 since they acquired Asdrubal Cabrera at the trade deadline. His presence gives the Nationals their best possible defense, and the Nationals’ clean play and run prevention have fueled their late-season surge. Zimmerman gives the Nationals a ridiculous lineup, but Williams will have to gauge if Zimmerman’s added offense makes up for the defensive downgrade.
No matter what, if the Nationals are facing a lefty like Madison Bumgarner or Clayton Kershaw in Game 1, Zimmerman will probably be in lineup, either playing first base or left field. But if it’s Gerrit Cole or Adam Wainwright, Zimmerman could be coming off the bench. This will be the most fascinating decision Williams faces.
1. Jose Lobaton
2. Nate Schierholtz
3. Danny Espinosa
4. Scott Hairston
5. Ryan Zimmerman
It would be incredibly difficult for the Nationals to leave Kevin Frandsen off the roster. He has performed his role well all season, providing defensive versatility and professional at-bats off the bench while helping to form the team’s spirit. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Williams keeps him. But with Zimmerman’s return, what does Frandsen offer the roster that the Nationals can’t get elsewhere?
Frandsen is not a worse player than the other bench options. It’s just that his skill set would be redundant where other player’s wouldn’t be. Schierholtz gives the Nationals their only left-handed pinch hitter. Espinosa has speed to pinch run, can crush lefties as a pinch hitter and can backup both middle infield spots. Hairston gives the Nationals their best chance to hit a homer off the bench.
Much of Frandsen’s value this season was tied to his ability to play left field, third base and first base when needed. Zimmerman can play all of those positions. Does Frandsen deserve to make the roster? Yes. But his skills would not be the best fit with the rest of the Nationals’ bench mix.
Also: If Zimmerman returns in a week and hits even close to his full capacity, it could make putting his name under “bench” look ridiculous. The best bet is that he starts against lefties and becomes a late-inning weapon in other games – and the DH in the American League park if the Nationals make the World Series. But we’ll see.