WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Joe Nathan walked into the Nationals clubhouse Sunday morning with a smile on his face, phone held to his ear with the volume turned loud, blasting the University of Oregon fight song — a jab at his teammates who had Kansas in their NCAA tournament brackets. The 42-year-old showed no signs of tension, and, in fact, exuded comfort, as he walked into a clubhouse that might not be his for long. The deadline for him to opt out of his deal is Monday, so his future is in flux, though one would not be able to tell as much from his demeanor here Sunday. Obviously, he has not opted out yet.
Nathan was still in the training room when reporters were told to leave the clubhouse after Sunday’s game, so he was unavailable to comment. But the veteran threw another scoreless inning, running his spring numbers to a 3.86 ERA in 11 2/3 innings with nine strikeouts and three walks. He is one of many veteran pitchers hovering in late-March limbo, but his case is particularly intriguing. He has the second most saves of any active pitcher, but if he does not find a job with the Nationals, he might not be active for long. Rebuilding teams often want to save roster spots for young up-and-comers. Contending teams usually cannot afford to take a chance on 42-year-olds.
But Nathan is a National for now, and his manager, Dusty Baker, stumped for him Sunday. Has Nathan, two Tommy John surgeries in, two years removed from steady effectiveness, shown he can still pitch in the big leagues?
“Definitely,” Baker said. “Ninety-one, 92 [mph] is plenty, then the slider. Then he’s shown he had a change-up, but he never threw it before. Now, he’s throwing some pretty good change-ups, too. I mean Joe has enough to pitch in the big leagues, depending on where you use him.”
Baker has been outspoken in his support for Nathan, who he believes can fit the same role Matt Belisle did last year — an unheralded, middle-inning type who does as much to influence younger pitchers off the field as he does to influence games played on it. But the Nationals might not have room for that type of pitcher this season. Five of their seven bullpen spots are all but locks. One of the other two seems likely to go to left-hander Enny Romero, who is out of options and therefore likely lost if not on the Opening Day roster. The other could go to young right-hander Koda Glover, if the Nationals decide they do not need a long man. If they decide they do, that last spot will probably go to Jeremy Guthrie, Vance Worley or Matt Albers — right-handers able to throw multiple innings if needed. Nathan, then, would not seem to fit either way.
While Guthrie impressed in his last start and Worley has compiled a 5.02 ERA this spring, Albers threw two more scoreless innings Sunday to continue a scoreless spring. The big right-hander has thrown 11 2/3 innings, struck out six and walked three. He seems like a longshot for the roster, mostly because he is less built for long relief than Guthrie or Worley. But Albers told pitching coach Mike Maddux he is comfortable going two or more innings at a time, well aware of the fact that the Nationals need that type of pitcher, well-stocked on one-inning types.
“Coming up I was a starter, and for a few years I was a multiple-inning reliever,” Albers said. “Maybe not necessarily a long guy who goes four or five innings, but I can consistently go two or three innings.”
Albers said he is used to spring trainings like this one, spent in uncertainty, waiting for the decision-makers to crunch the numbers. He said he is not sure whether or not he will stay with the organization if the team does not add him to the roster, since he simply is not at that point. That point, when decisions are made and the roster whittled, is coming. Nathan’s opt-out means the Nationals will probably try to give him a sense of his future sooner than later.
According to the collective bargaining agreement, players with enough service time to be free agents, who sign minor league deals like Albers did, must be paid a $100,000 retention bonus if the club does not add them to the 40-man or release them by Tuesday. That does not mean the Nationals will make all their cuts Monday, but it does provide incentive to make decisions soon. For Nathan, a decision will likely come Monday.
● Gio Gonzalez gave up more runs Sunday than he had all spring — four, in five innings of work. Neither he nor Baker seemed particularly upset by the results of the outing, more focused on the fact that Gonzalez threw 91 pitches, the most a Nationals’ starter has thrown this spring. He is, therefore, on a good pace to begin the season at full strength.
● The Nationals re-assigned Brandon Snyder to minor league camp Sunday morning. Snyder, a Virginia native, will stay with the organization and report to Syracuse.