VIERA, Fla. — The Nationals will wake up Thursday morning, run their fingers across the Grapefruit League calendar and count only seven more days left in Florida. Three home games and four road games, including Sunday’s split-squad action, remain before a flight to D.C. for two exhibition games.
“This time of year, there’s a lot of packing and a lot of getting things loaded up again,” Stephen Strasburg said. “Spring training went by really fast. Not looking forward to that. I am looking forward to getting settled up in D.C.”
After Lucas Giolito was sent to minor league camp on Wednesday, the Nationals have 40 players left in spring training. Only 25 will make the active roster. The rotation — Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark and Joe Ross — is set. As is the projected starting outfield: Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Ben Revere.
The opening day infield will likely include Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Wilson Ramos and, unless more offensive issues arise, Danny Espinosa. The bench and the bullpen still have some uncertainty, but likely only one spot in each group.
Although there is an urge to know the Opening Day roster sooner rather than later, Manager Dusty Baker said he is trying to balance playing times for expected regulars with giving players ample time for roster candidates to win jobs on the team.
“I don’t want anybody saying they didn’t get an opportunity,” Baker said. “Some guys require more of an opportunity than others. We keep track of the innings and at-bats and stuff like that. It’s a lot of work and when and get everybody their ample innings at the same time.”
Baker said that as soon as the Nationals settle on their regulars, he can start playing matchups or putting players in their assigned roles in the game to get ready for the season. But in order to pare down the roster, Baker also has to test players. For example: Sean Burnett, a third left-handed reliever candidate who is returning from two injured-plagued seasons, hasn’t pitched back-to-back days. Baker said he would love three left-handed relievers in a bullpen — if there is room.
“We’re still trying to decide on that,” Baker said. “I know everybody wants answers. What’s today? The 23rd [of March]? That’s why these last cuts are the toughest cuts. I’ve always wanted three lefties. But Sean hasn’t thrown back to back days yet either. We don’t know how he’s going to respond. Once the season starts, it’s not like ‘You’re off today’ or ‘You’re gonna pitch today’ or whatever because you don’t know. It’s a totally different animal.”
But roster decisions aren’t all clear cut “yes or no” decisions. Contracts are complicating factors and Baker said they are part of the equation. Whether a player has an opt-out clause (or doesn’t), or if they have minor league options left (or don’t), are considerations.
“I’m not privileged to that information,” Baker said. “Nor do I want to be sometimes because I don’t want that to play into my decision when I cast a vote. We’ll sit down tomorrow and try to hash this thing out. I have a major vote but I’m not the only vote. We’re gonna try to leave with the best team that we can and leave with not only on the field but the best team as backups in case something does happen.”
So the Nationals will explore how to field the best 25-man roster to start the season, but also the best way keep as many valuable players around as possible. Burnett, in camp on a minor league deal, has an April 1 opt-out and, if he exercises it, the Nationals have
48 24 hours to add him to the 25-man roster or release him, according to a person familiar with the situation.
In one projected bullpen, Jonathan Papelbon, Felipe Rivero, Shawn Kelley, Yusmeiro Petit and Oliver Perez are in, while Trevor Gott, Blake Treinen, Nick Masset, Rafael Martin, Matt Belisle and Burnett are up for the final two spots. Rival scouts have been impressed with Gott’s arm, Treinen has been effective this spring and Burnett is an intriguing candidate. Belisle, a dark horse candidate, has a March 27 opt-out, according to another person familiar with the contract details.
For the bench, one projection has Michael A. Taylor, Jose Lobaton, Clint Robinson and Stephen Drew in. The final spot could be decided between Matt den Dekker, Brendan Ryan, Reed Johnson, Scott Sizemore, Trea Turner, Tyler Moore, Chris Heisey and Tony Campana. Even though Turner has been flashed strong tools such as speed and contact, the Nationals think he needs to play every day.
“Sometimes you don’t keep the best 25 because they may need more seasoning,” Baker said without mentioning any names. “You might have the most ability but they need to play because it’s not going to help their progress sitting around. You’re getting them at-bats. It’s a pleasant problem to have. A whole bunch of people wish they had our problem.”
Ryan, Johnson and Sizemore have hit the best of the final bench spot candidates. All three are right-handed hitters but Johnson is the lone outfielder of that bunch. Ryan and Johnson, both signed to minor league deals, have opt-outs for Opening Day, according to a person familiar with the situation.
“It’s not a very pleasant time especially when you got to cut guys,” Baker said. “The final cuts is not a very pleasant time because, as a manager, that’s the thing you dread the most when you leave home for spring training. But it’s part of the game and you gotta be somebody. ”
DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY: 11