The Nationals cut their spring training squad down to an opening day 25-man roster Friday night. They selected Blake Treinen for the final spot in the bullpen, so flame-thrower Trevor Gott will be sent to the minors and reclaimed left-hander Sean Burnett must look for work elsewhere. They chose Chris Heisey for the final spot on their bench, leaving veterans Reed Johnson and Brendan Ryan to decide what’s next, and Matt den Dekker to pack his things for Syracuse again.
Twenty years of managing do not make nights like this easier if Dusty Baker’s face after Friday night’s game was any indication. “Not a very pleasant event for me,” Baker said, a few minutes before making cuts.
Years of playing do not alleviate the awkwardness, not for players waiting to hear about their fates, nor for teammates with secure roster spots finishing up their work in the clubhouse as others wait to hear. The clubhouse was relatively quiet after Friday’s 4-3 exhibition game win over the Twins.
Burnett headed in to Baker’s office and the door closed behind him. When he emerged, he turned to his locker, head on his phone, before politely sharing the news he had only just heard himself.
“I didn’t make it,” said Burnett, who did not allow a run in nine appearances this spring.
“I’ve never been in this situation in this process,” said Burnett, who was notified in time to opt-out of his minor league deal with the Nationals. “I guess I’ll call my agent and see what the next step is. Don’t know right now. I guess I’ll look around for a job.”
Burnett, the former Nationals relief stalwart and sentimental favorite who worked his way back from a second Tommy John surgery, was a casualty of numbers, not poor performance. Right-hander Matt Belisle officially made the team earlier this week, leaving one fewer spot for Burnett, Gott and Treinen.
Baker announced Friday that he would carry the usual seven-man bullpen to start the season, instead of carrying eight relievers and four starters through an early schedule peppered with days off. That meant one spot remained for Gott, Burnett and Treinen. Gott allowed three earned runs in nine innings this spring, and the Nationals love his quick arm and the mid-90s fastball it yields on a regular basis. But he still has options and is still just 23.
Treinen, meanwhile, impressed Baker and the new staff both with his natural stuff and the progress he made in honing it. Treinen had to find a way to get lefties out, because despite a powerful sinker and strong slider. (They hit .336 against him last season.) New pitching coach Mike Maddux tutored the 27-year-old all spring, on mechanics and a more fierce approach. Treinen finished this spring with nine strikeouts and one walk in 9 2/3 scoreless innings. After he threw another scoreless inning, and retired another lefty, Friday night, Baker said Treinen has “figured it out.”
“He’s throwing the ball up more on left-handers. He knew and Mike (Maddux) knew what we had to work on in spring training,” Baker said. “I’ll tell you, like I said, whenever somebody talked trade with us, they always named Treinen. He has tremendous value, especially at the tail end of the ballgame.”
Treinen pitched the eighth inning Friday, serving as set-up man to closer Jonathan Papelbon, who pitched a perfect ninth. Baker said he anticipates Treinen being used in “that kind of way.”
As Burnett got his news, Heisey leaned back in one of the chairs in a mostly quiet clubhouse, dressed, showered and ready to go, scrolling on his phone as he waited. A few hours later, he’d made his first opening day roster since 2014. Heisey hit .238 with three doubles and two homers this spring.
Ryan was nowhere to be seen Friday, didn’t have a locker set up in the Nationals clubhouse. No word on his next step yet. Den Dekker and Johnson both played Friday night and finished the spring with averages of .308 and .323, respectively. Johnson can opt-out of his minor league deal with the Nationals, and the most prolific pinch hitter of the last five seasons will likely do so, seeking work elsewhere. Den Dekker, who impressed Baker this spring and was probably the most complete player in competition for a spot, will head to Syracuse until needed.
The Nationals bench already featured left-handed hitters Stephen Drew and Clint Robinson, but lacked a natural right-handed pinch-hit option. Heisey, 31, packs more power than Johnson, and also ranks in the top five in baseball when it comes to pinch hits in the last five seasons. He played for Baker in Cincinnati from 2010-13 and have a .282 career average and .936 OPS in 160 pinch-hit plate appearances.
Injuries and performance will dictate shuffling. The current construction of the roster will likely not be its future construction, but it is built to win, not so much to experiment, or give guys an early season chance. Though Johnson and den Dekker performed better this spring statistically, Heisey provides right-handed pinch-hit power to complement Robinson and Drew from the left side. Baker’s opening day bench is built to maneuver late game situations.
The Nationals did not officially announce their opening day roster Friday night. They also did not provide official word on whether or not Burnett, Johnson and Ryan opted out of their minor league deals or not. But based on the announcements made Friday night, the Nationals roster will almost certainly look like this:
2016 PROJECTED OPENING DAY ROSTER
Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Danny Espinosa, Stephen Drew, Clint Robinson
Bryce Harper, Ben Revere, Michael A. Taylor, Jayson Werth, Chris Heisey
Wilson Ramos, Jose Lobaton
Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, Joe Ross
Matt Belisle (R), Shawn Kelley (R), Oliver Perez (L), Yusmeiro Petit (R), Felipe Rivero (L), Blake Treinen (R), Jonathan Papelbon (R)