NEW YORK — In order to activate Jeremy Hellickson to start Monday night’s series opener with the Mets, the Nationals needed to make two official roster moves and one unofficial roster move. First, they had to clear a spot on the 25-man roster. Second, they had to clear a spot on the 40-man roster, which is often the more complicated task. Finally, they needed to clear a spot in the starting rotation.
Three hours before game time, they announced both official moves, optioning reliever Trevor Gott to Class AAA Syracuse to clear room on the 25-man roster. Next, they placed catcher Jhonatan Solano on the 60-day disabled list to clear room on the 40-man roster. Neither move requires them to risk losing a player.
Sending Gott to Syracuse was the only move that wouldn’t leave the Nationals shorthanded. Though they have carried a short bench and larger bullpen before and could have just added A.J. Cole to the bullpen and sent a position player out, they cannot afford to do that now. Anthony Rendon has not played since Saturday after fouling a ball off his big toe. Brian Goodwin is dealing with a sore wrist, and is still only available for limited late-game duty. So the Nationals have three healthy players on their bench, and one of them is a catcher.
Gott and left-hander Sammy Solis were the only members of the bullpen with options remaining, and Solis has gained enough trust from Manager Dave Martinez that he has become a crucial part of the late-game arsenal. Cole can fill Gott’s role as a right-handed middle reliever, so Gott became momentarily expendable. He had an 5.40 ERA in five appearances.
The unofficial move, the one that cleared a spot in the rotation, pushed Cole out of the rotation and to the bullpen. He lost his spot after two extremely different outings. In his first start of the season, Cole allowed 10 runs in 3 2/3 innings to the Braves. In his second, he allowed two runs in five innings to those same Braves.
“All they said is they need some extra help in the pen right now, and I’m going to go there and help them wherever they need me,” said Cole, who has made five career relief appearances and is pitching to a 3.00 ERA.
The notion of “needing help in the pen” is part company line, part reality. At several points this season, the Nationals could have used a long man, someone to eat three or four innings at a time instead of one or two. Having Cole in the pen will provide insurance if a starter falters, and he will be at full strength behind Hellickson on Monday night. It will also prevent the Nationals from having to place him on waivers before assigning him to the minors. Cole is out of options, and another team with a weaker rotation might decide he would fit well in its major league rotation.
Though no one has said so officially, the Nationals planned to give Hellickson a chance all along, which is not the same thing as planning to bump Cole. They signed Hellickson for depth, and should anyone get injured, Cole could find his way back into the rotation. If Hellickson struggles, the Nationals have not committed a great deal of money to him, either. If neither settles in as the fifth starter, right-hander Erick Fedde seems just about ready for regular big league duty, and will probably get a chance at some point this season regardless. In the meantime, the job certainly feels like Hellickson’s to lose.
Solano, meanwhile, will get to enjoy at least two months of major league money while not appearing in a single game. The Nationals called the veteran and longtime Syracuse Chiefs catcher up when Miguel Montero left for paternity leave, then placed him on the 10-day disabled list with bone chips in his elbow instead of sending him down when Montero returned. Now, instead of placing him on waivers then sending him back to Syracuse, they will keep Solano around on a big league salary, a nice reward for a veteran who has toiled in the system for years without much chance at cracking the major league roster.
That Solano will be unavailable to play until June has actual baseball consequences. The Nationals are short on catching depth after cutting Montero, in part because prospect Raudy Read is serving an 80-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, and with Pedro Severino already called up. Spencer Kieboom is the most big league ready catcher active in Washington’s system, and the recent signing of Tuffy Gosewich means he could be an option soon, too. Either man would need to be added to the 40-man roster should the Nationals need his help.
WASHINGTON NATIONALS (7-9)
Trea Turner SS
Howie Kendrick 2B
Bryce Harper RF
Ryan Zimmerman 1B
Matt Adams LF
Matt Wieters C
Wilmer Difo 3B
Jeremy Hellickson P
Michael A. Taylor CF
NEW YORK METS (12-2)
Brandon Nimmo RF
Asdrubal Cabrera 2B
Michael Conforto LF
Todd Frazier 3B
Adrian Gonzalez 1B
Juan Lagares CF
Jose Lobaton C
Jacob DeGrom P
Amed Rosario SS