WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Vance Worley smiled when he answered, something he has done a great deal this spring, despite the circumstances. The big right-hander could only chuckle at the notion that anyone in his position, a nonroster invitee fighting for a spot on a team that has few spots open, could be anything other than on edge.
“I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t stressing,” Worley said. “There’s nobody who is at this point in camp and not on a roster who says ‘I’m not stressed.’ I try to do everything the way I’ve done it everywhere else, and it’s really up to them. … I try to put on a smile, be happy, and be a good teammate.”
Worley is not alone in his position, because the Nationals brought in several experienced pitchers like him as nonroster invitees this spring. The man with the second-most saves of any active player, Joe Nathan, squeezes in a locker across the room, right next to a former World Series Game 7 starter, Jeremy Guthrie. Matt Albers has appeared in 452 major league games. Neal Cotts has appeared in 483.
While Cotts and Nathan seem better suited to a single-inning type role, Manager Dusty Baker said Worley, Guthrie and even Albers are in consideration for the “utility pitcher” job — the one Yusmeiro Petit held last season. At the most, all of them are competing for one spot. At the least, they are auditioning for other interested teams, because the Nationals’ bullpen began the spring crowded, and got more crowded when the Nationals signed Joe Blanton.
“Early on in camp, it was a good opportunity here, and I think it still is,” Worley said. “But they went out and signed a few guys, and some of them got spots. It’s tough not to think about it, but at the same time, this is pretty much a tryout for everybody.”
Worley got his first start of the spring Monday in the Nationals’ loss to the Yankees, and struggled early, allowing four runs before he got his fifth out, and walking back-to-back men to start the second. He finished after 3 1/3 innings and did not allow another run. For what it’s worth, and usually it is worth very little, Worley’s spring ERA is now 5.84 in six appearances.
Guthrie also pitched Monday. He allowed a double to Greg Bird and a home run to Matt Holliday in two innings of work. Guthrie’s fastball sat around 93 mph at times this spring, and he showcased good command of his secondary stuff — including a 60-mph eephus pitched he dropped against the Marlins last weekend. In seven appearances, the 37-year-old Guthrie is pitching to a 3.48 ERA.
Nathan relieved Guthrie, his ninth appearance of a busy spring, which is exactly what his former Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux promised him when he signed with the Nationals in the first place. While multiple scouts said they have not seen much life in Nathan’s stuff this spring, the 42-year-old said he feels more comfortable than he has since his second Tommy John surgery in 2014.
His oft-repaired right elbow seems to be healthy, which was something he hoped to prove to Baker and Maddux during his chances this spring, and his stats support his claims of comfort. After working a scoreless seventh inning Monday, Nathan’s spring ERA is 3.00, though seven of his nine appearances have been scoreless.
“He works hard, and you hope that he has enough to make this club and contribute. A lot of people are pulling for him,” Baker said. “So we just have to continue to pitch because we’re running out of time. We have to make some decisions here soon.”
But would the Nationals take Nathan, at 42 throwing in the low 90s, over the up-and-coming flamethrower Koda Glover? Would they take him over a would-be long man like Worley, Guthrie, or someone else? The chances for that seem slim, and Nathan understands. His deal includes a March 24 opt-out date, according to reports, which means the Nationals must make a decision on his status this week.
“I think I’ve been through so much now, I’ve seen that business side of it,” Nathan said. “I pitched pretty well with the Cubs for a brief stint last year, but unfortunately fell short with the business side of it and the numbers crunch and roster spots and stuff like that. So I think that’s helped me to come into this year and kind of channel things and put my focus where I can control.”
Cotts said the same thing about his status, that he is doing all he can to worry about himself, controlling what he can. The 36-year-old said he signed with the Nationals to be part of a winning organization, something he has learned to value more during his 10-year career, and that the competition between veterans like him has not prevented the whole thing from being “an enjoyable camp.” Cotts made his seventh appearance of the spring on Monday, and after not allowing a run in any of the first six, he conceded three runs on four hits to the Yankees’ subs Monday — though in fairness, the big blow came from highly touted prospect Gleyber Torres, who delivered a bases-loaded double.
“Going into it, you kind of understand where you’re at and what you need to do,” Cotts said this weekend. “ … As long as I’m doing that, you put it in their hands, and whatever happens, happens. You can go to bed at night and go home and know that you’ve done what you can do.”
Baker has said many times that he hopes to resolve roster competitions early enough that veteran players who do not make the team will have time to find work elsewhere. Opening Day is two weeks away, and most teams break camp in 10 days. Time is running out, and decisions are drawing near.
“I’d like clarity a couple weeks ago, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen,” Baker said. “It looks like it’s going to come down to the end.”