WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Two weeks from Monday, most of the Nationals will be settling into their D.C. homes, readying themselves for an exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins and repacking their bags for a season-opening road trip to Cincinnati and Atlanta. Two weeks does not seem like a particularly long time, not when Nationals regulars are still playing only a few innings a day, not when so many lockers remain filled in their clubhouse at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. But the Nationals have much to accomplish in those two weeks, with all the major questions of spring training still lingering.
Will Mike Rizzo get a contract extension?
The Nationals’ general manager has had some talks — but made little progress — on an extension to his contract, which expires Oct. 31. He is still optimistic he will get one. Little has changed in his relationship with the Lerner family. But as Opening Day nears, Rizzo still does not have a deal, which means his contract situation could hover over this season much like Dusty Baker’s did in 2017.
When will Daniel Murphy be ready?
Murphy began hitting with his teammates this past weekend, which represents a small step for the 33-year-old. He is running on treadmills now but not on the field. He is fielding but only in stationary drills. In other words, he seems at least two weeks away, meaning he likely will not be ready for Opening Day. None of that constitutes a surprise.
Still, if Murphy can get into games before the end of the spring, his regular season absence will likely by measured in weeks, not months. If Murphy loses months more to the rehabilitation of his surgically repaired knee, the Nationals will be without one of the most pivotal presences in their lineup for an extended period.
Will Victor Robles make the Opening Day roster?
Keeping Robles in the minors for a couple of months before bringing him up full-time will allow the Nationals to maintain another season of control over their precocious young outfielder, which could be incentive enough to leave him in Class AAA Syracuse for at least the first few months of the season. But Michael A. Taylor hasn’t played in a game in a week after experiencing tightness in his side, and Adam Eaton has yet to graduate from controlled games on the back fields to actual Grapefruit League action. Manager Dave Martinez has indicated that both are still progressing, that Taylor is mostly fine and Eaton is still hoping to be ready for Opening Day.
But if either is still struggling to find his footing two weeks from now, the Nationals might have to give strong consideration to the explosive, game-changing youngster who made their playoff roster last season — though consensus holds that if Robles gets his chance in the majors, he won’t let the Nationals send him back to the minors.
Who will be their backup catcher?
The Nationals signed veteran catcher Miguel Montero and told him he had a legitimate chance to not only compete for the backup catcher’s job but to play regularly if he won it. Nothing has changed. Montero has looked comfortable at the plate, despite seeing several line drives end up in gloves, not on grass, and has been given more chances to build rapport with the Nationals’ veteran starters than younger Pedro Severino has.
Montero has struggled throwing to bases, which was never his strong suit, but has caught the eye of scouts from other teams who would likely pass that information along to those who can strategize against him. So the Nationals must decide whether they want the elevated experience and declining defensive skills of a veteran, or the risk that comes with trusting Severino, an elite defender with uncommon athleticism for someone at his position.
Will A.J. Cole be their fifth starter?
The Nationals’ plans still include Cole as the favorite for fifth starter, with Erick Fedde a spot behind him on the depth chart, although Cole has never blown them away in that role. Cole was supposed to start Monday in Lakeland, but he contracted a stomach virus, so Edwin Jackson will pitch instead. He seems unlikely to supplant Cole. Only an outside acquisition seems likely to push him out of the rotation, but with Jake Arrieta signing elsewhere, the job seems to be Cole’s to lose.
And what about the bullpen?
For the first time in years, the back end of the bullpen seems established. Sean Doolittle will close. Ryan Madson will set him up. Brandon Kintzler will set him up. Should any of them need a break, the others will shuffle. Veterans Shawn Kelley and Joaquin Benoit, both of whom have battled mixed results this spring, seem likely to be there, too. If they are, the Nationals know who five of their seven relievers will be. The other two will probably be left-handed. The Nationals have plenty of options.
Sammy Solis is the only one of the contenders with options, but he is also the most highly valued internally and seems likely to secure a spot. Enny Romero and Matt Grace are also in contention, though Grace is working on building longer-term stamina — at most so that he could start if needed, at least so he could handle long relief. Barring unforeseen injury, or the decision to carry eight relievers on their roster, the Nationals will likely have to decide on two of that trio before Opening Day rolls around.