WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A.J. Cole is going to make the Nationals’ Opening Day roster. General Manager Mike Rizzo didn’t hesitate to say that when speaking to reporters Monday. If Cole pitches well enough, he will be their fifth starter. If Jeremy Hellickson earns that spot, Cole will stay in the bullpen. He is out of options, but the Nationals do not want to lose him to waivers. They will find a place for him.
“He’s got a great arm,” Rizzo said. “He’s a good prospect. He’s going to make the team.”
Though Hellickson is scheduled to start one of two split-squad games Friday night, Rizzo thinks the right-hander is behind Cole and the rest of the starters in terms of his regular season readiness. His contract does not contain an opt-out until May 1, which means Hellickson has time to stay behind in West Palm Beach when the team heads north, catch up to everyone else and still have time to compete for a rotation spot. But for now, Cole seems the likeliest man to start against the Braves as the Nationals’ fifth starter.
If he does, the Nationals will be carrying five starters, eight position-playing starters and presumably a five-man bench. That leaves seven spots for relievers, five of which are locks — Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, Shawn Kelley and Joaquin Benoit. Though Kelley and Benoit have struggled this spring, both are guaranteed money and seem likely to get at least some chance to prove they are well enough to contribute.
If those five break with the team, the Nationals will have two spots left, presumably for two left-handed pitchers to complement Doolittle and their late-game right-handed arsenal. Sammy Solis is the only one of four competing lefties with options, but the Nationals have always treasured him, and he has pitched well enough this spring to hold onto a roster spot. Should Solis take that spot, the Nationals will have three left-handers — Matt Grace, Enny Romero and Tim Collins — competing for one spot. Grace and Romero are out of options, meaning whichever does not make the Opening Day roster must be placed on waivers before landing in the minors. Both have résumés that would entice other teams to take a chance on them, and the Nationals would likely lose that player.
Spring training relief stats mean little, and almost every Nationals reliever has struggled in recent days. But Romero has struggled more than most, with a 10.50 ERA in seven appearances. Though he touches 100 mph with his fastball, he gets hit at 100 mph, too. Evaluators say Romero shows the ball to hitters long enough for them to get a look, something that likely contributes to the lack of swings and misses on his fastball.
Collins could also play his way into the conversation, though he is with the Nationals on a minor league deal and could bide time in Class AAA Syracuse without having to brave waivers.
Grace doesn’t have the same high-end stuff as Romero or the major league track record of Collins. But he does walk nearly two fewer men per nine innings than Romero and has the ability to go multiple innings in a way Romero and Collins don’t. Without Cole in the bullpen, the Nationals will need a long man, and Doolittle, Madson, Kintzler, Kelley and Benoit cannot handle those duties. Solis can, on occasion, eat a few innings at a time, but he has a long injury history. The Nationals have been stretching Grace out somewhat this spring, meaning he is well-equipped to eat innings. The 29-year-old is probably a better fit for this particular Nationals bullpen than Romero. They will have to choose between them by Opening Day.
Should Hellickson eventually elbow his way into the rotation, the Nationals will likely have to decide whose spot Cole takes in the bullpen. Kelley and Benoit are aging, but if they are pitching well, they aren’t likely to go anywhere. Doolittle, Madson and Kintzler are locked in to late inning roles for now. Solis probably wouldn’t go anywhere if he is pitching well. In that case, Grace could be the casualty of Hellickson’s arrival, though that assumes Grace makes the Opening Day roster — and that Hellickson pitches better than Cole.
Hypotheticals aside, Rizzo’s endorsement of Cole has immediate implications for the rotation and long-term implications for the construction of Washington’s bullpen. The Nationals have a history of avoiding definitive decisions, finding ways to keep players around despite lacking an obvious place for them. They have plenty of decisions to make this week, though whether Cole will make the Opening Day roster is apparently no longer one of them.
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