So much of the Nationals’ division-winning season was spent plugging holes created by injury, searching for answers to sudden, but temporary, roster problems everyone figured would get sorted out in the end. But the end is here, and the Nationals have used a multitude of players who have made a multitude of contributions. Now, they must whittle that long list of contributors to 25 indispensables, and they have four days to do it.
The Nationals will rest Monday, then hold workouts at Nationals Park on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, hoping that the work they do then can somehow prepare them for the rush of adrenaline and attention that will hit them Friday. They will probably also use that time to finalize their playoff roster, which will not be hard to do, generally speaking. Only a few major decisions loom.
The primary decisions surround their bench, both the size of it and the content. Last season, the Nationals carried six players on their playoff bench, one more than the regular season five. This season, four players feel like October bench locks: Howie Kendrick, Adam Lind, Wilmer Difo and Jose Lobaton. That quartet lacks a natural defensive center fielder and probably could use another speedy type.
Their options to fill that center field void start with Brian Goodwin, who has been working out in West Palm Beach, Fla., and getting at-bats in instructional league. Goodwin would be the most natural choice to fill out that bench, given that he proved himself a capable big league hitter this season. But he has not played since August, sidelined with a groin injury that did not heal enough for him to make a traditional rehab assignment. Can the Nationals afford for his first big league at-bat in two months to come late in a postseason game?
If not, Alejandro De Aza seems like a potential option and has played in six postseason games with an average of .333. But Dusty Baker does not consider him a center fielder, at least if one considers how he has played De Aza this season. He has put the veteran in center once, for a total of seven innings.
The more obvious choice for a plus defender in center field is 20-year-old rookie Victor Robles, whose potential to make impact plays is greater than either Goodwin or De Aza. He has looked calm and in control since making his major league debut in September, and he has six hits in 23 at-bats — two of them triples. His elite, Trea Turner-esque speed makes him an ideal late-game pinch runner. The question, of course, is whether Robles can handle the bright lights of postseason play with so little experience.
In addition to their backup center fielder, the Nationals are considering the idea of carrying a third catcher on their roster. That catcher would most likely be Pedro Severino, who started in Game 1 of last year’s NLDS after Wilson Ramos’s season ended with a knee injury. The logic behind a third catcher would be to have a pinch runner specifically for Matt Wieters, who is not a particularly fast human being. Instead of burning two players for one move — pinch running for Wieters, then subbing in Jose Lobaton — the Nationals could just use Severino, who has above-average speed for a catcher. In games in which one run matters, so one extra pinch hitter can make all the difference, that third catcher could become a difference-maker.
If the Nationals choose a third catcher, that would leave them seven spots for relief pitchers, given that they will take four starters for the first round. If they do not take a third catcher, they will have eight spots for relievers. As things stood Sunday, the Nationals seem to have three right-handed and three left-handed relief locks: Matt Albers, Brandon Kintzler and Ryan Madson from the right side, Oliver Perez, Sammy Solis and Sean Doolittle from the left side. If the Nationals have just one relief spot to fill, they will likely not take a long reliever: A.J. Cole or Edwin Jackson. They simply wouldn’t have room and probably not need. Then again, last season, even with that six-man bench, they did take Reynaldo Lopez as a potential multi-inning option. But Lopez also showed late-inning stuff with a high-90s fastball.
Say they don’t take a long reliever but do take a six-man bench. That last spot in the bullpen probably goes to lefty Enny Romero or right-hander Joe Blanton, both of whom have shown they can go multiple innings if needed. If the Nationals take a five-man bench, they could take both Romero and Blanton, thereby increasing their innings-eating capability without the need for a long man at all. Given that Romero showed himself capable of setup duties at times earlier this season, and Blanton has 48 1/3 innings of playoff experience, one could certainly build an argument for taking both of them.
Which of the relievers the Nationals choose likely will not be influenced by what happens this week during workouts. Exactly what Goodwin shows them could influence the Nationals’ decision-makers, who probably have a fairly good idea of what decisions they will make already. They probably will not share them until Thursday, or even Friday morning. After all, the Cubs probably have no idea exactly who they’ll be facing in that NLDS — why give them a heads up?
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