The morning began with a meeting of the minds, with Mike Rizzo and Paul Lessard and others in Dave Martinez’s office for a chat. The door to that office has been open all spring. For most of Saturday morning, it was closed.
When the dust settled, the Nationals named Miguel Montero their backup catcher and optioned Pedro Severino to Class AAA Syracuse.
“[Severino] is a future catcher,” Martinez said. ” … if one of those guys goes down, he’s going to play.”
Washington also optioned outfielder Andrew Stevenson to AAA, released outfielder Ryan Raburn and infielder Reid Brignac, and reassigned Moises Sierra, Chris Dominguez, Spencer Kieboom, and pitchers Tim Collins, Edwin Jackson, Tommy Milone, and Chris Smith to minor league camp.
Martinez was downtrodden by the end of the day, as was assistant GM Bob Miller, who oversees the rules and regulations aspect of the Nationals operation, and is therefore intimately involved in cuts each year. These days are not fun for anyone.
Saturday made sense as cut day for two reasons. First of all, the team leaves for D.C. after a final Grapefruit League game on Sunday, and leaving those on the cusp wondering about their travel plans would be somewhat rude. Secondly, Saturday is five days from the start of the season, the deadline for players with six years of service time or more to be given written assurance of a major league roster or disabled list spot, or to receive a $100,000 retention bonus while waiting around for decisions. Raburn has six years of service time and wasn’t going to get a spot on the Opening Day roster or DL. He was the first player to start shaking hands and doling out hugs Saturday morning.
In accordance with the rules, the Nationals also released starter Jeremy Hellickson, though that was all part of the plan. Rizzo negotiated with Hellickson’s agent, Scott Boras, that the team would release him Saturday, then re-sign him to a minor league deal to avoid paying him the retention bonus. So, a few hours after his first Grapefruit League appearance as a National, Hellickson wasn’t getting any hugs — impressive as his four innings of one-run ball were Friday night.
Montero, 34, will be the Nationals’ backup behind the plate, which is why he was subbed into the starting lineup Saturday to catch Max Scherzer. He had previously caught every other Nationals starter this spring and is hitting .200 with a homer, but looked more than competitive at the plate and earned respect with his in-game decisions. Montero, who also has a history with Martinez after their time together in Chicago, is a proven pinch hitter and has more experience with limited playing time than Severino.
“[Montero] handles the staff well, the pitchers really well,” Martinez said. “And he’s always been a good, clutch hitter, and I like that. For me, it’s more about Severino and making sure … we do the right thing for him. We really value the fact he is going to be an everyday catcher for us one day.”
Severino hit .111 in 15 games. He will be the everyday catcher in Syracuse, where he can get the everyday development Martinez said he needs. Kieboom will likely split time with Severino there, at least until Raudy Read returns from his suspension for using banned substances. Read made his major league debut in 2017, and is nearly as advanced as Severino, but considered to have more offensive upside.
The other takeaway from Saturday’s purge was a clearer bullpen picture. Adams and Collins had pitched themselves into contention for big league bullpen spots, but without them, only Trevor Gott, Matt Grace, Enny Romero and Sammy Solis remain in camp as relievers not guaranteed major league money this season. Of that group, Gott and Solis have options, but Solis seems like the surest bet to make the team, with the only lefty locked into a role is Sean Doolittle at closer. Should Solis make the team, that leaves Gott, Grace, and Romero in contention for what could be one or two remaining bullpen spots, as shown below:
Martinez said the Nationals are deciding between taking eight relievers north and maintaining a four-man bench, or taking seven relievers and starting the season with the more traditional five-man bench. As things stand, because Daniel Murphy will start the season on the disabled list, that bench has four players locked into spots: Montero, Matt Adams, Wilmer Difo, and Brian Goodwin. Of position players, only infielders Matt Reynolds and Adrian Sanchez remain in camp after Saturday’s cuts. Sanchez is nursing a sore heel. Reynolds has played nearly every day this camp, and has hit .289. Sanchez hit .222 in 23 games.
If the Nationals decide to keep an extra reliever, Reynolds and Sanchez will both head to the minors. If they decide to take one of that pair, only one of Romero, Grace and Gott will make the roster. Martinez said he expects those decisions to be made in D.C., where the Nationals are scheduled to play the Twins in an exhibition game on Tuesday. With one day before they head north, their Opening Day roster is beginning to take shape, with few surprises to speak of, and a lot of tough conversations behind them.