WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Vidal Nuño III has a chance to make the Washington Nationals. It’s an even stronger possibility after the team released left-handed reliever Sammy Solis on Saturday. Nuño should know this. It’s why the 31-year-old lefty is here, trying to cash in on a minor league contract, pitching for a job. Everything is geared toward being in Washington for Opening Day on March 28.
But Nuño said he is not thinking about roster spots or whether one is reserved for him. And if you tell him that can’t be totally true, that everyone claims they take it “one day at a time” when at least one eye must be on the bigger picture, he’ll double down.
“That’s so far away from now, man,” Nuño said Monday morning, leaning back in the chair in front of his locker. “I can’t think about Opening Day — not with how much time we have left down here. It’s one pitch at a time, one day at a time, all of that. It has to be.”
If Nuño won’t count each spot in the bullpen, and how many could be open, then allow everyone else to. This will be a regular exercise until the Nationals set their 25-man roster to start the season. Washington’s bullpen is its biggest question mark, partly because it’s not quite clear who will be in it, and because many of its projected parts are unproven or recently injured. The set relievers appear to be closer Sean Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Matt Grace, Justin Miller (assuming a muscle strain in his back fully heals) and Wander Suero. That would leave one opening, but Manager Dave Martinez noted Monday that there could be two spots to fight for.
Martinez added that minor league options could affect the decision — Suero has them and could be sent down without going on waivers, while Miller does not — as well as that the Nationals don’t necessarily need another lefty reliever. But Martinez has expressed confidence in Nuño since Solis was released, making it seem as if the veteran has an inside track to make a bullpen that otherwise has just two left-handed options, Doolittle and Grace. Doolittle can’t be used in specific matchups because he pitches the ninth. Grace, while solid against left-handed hitters last year, probably will moonlight as a long man and bounce between middle- and high-leverage appearances.
Nuño, who has experience as a starter and long reliever, provides versatility and could help streamline Grace’s role. But the Nationals on Wednesday also acquired veteran lefty reliever Tony Sipp, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. Sipp, 35, had a 1.86 ERA in 38⅔ innings with the Houston Astros last season. Nuño had a 1.64 ERA in 33 innings for the Tampa Bay Rays. When asked Sunday whether Washington needed to look outside the organization for a reliever, Martinez deferred to General Manager Mike Rizzo and again vouched for Nuño.
“What I like about him is that he’s got a little funk to him,” Martinez said. “His ball, all of a sudden, comes out of nowhere and it is on top of you. And for a left-handed hitter, facing a lefty, that’s pretty tough.”
There is a chance the Nationals lose Nuño if they don’t take him into the season. His contract, which would pay him $1.3 million if he appears in the majors, includes opt-outs March 27 and June 15 if he is not on the 25-man roster. Nuño’s agent, Joe Gaza, gave him a list of options this winter that included more than 10 teams. The Nationals made sense because they needed left-handed relievers, and they also thought Nuño could audition as a depth starter.
Those spots are set, at least in theory, with Joe Ross, Erick Fedde, Austin Voth, Kyle McGowin and maybe Henderson Alvarez backing up a stacked rotation. The bullpen is where Nuño can fit. He is quiet in the clubhouse and detailed in his approach, even in the spring, often mapping out whom he may face in a given game. Bullpen coach Henry Blanco has seen Nuño scope out the lefties on a team’s roster and hatch specific plans. He has given up two runs in four innings, across five appearances, and it would be understandable if he placed extra pressure on each pitch.
But that’s not his way. He has pitched for five teams in six years; he has been a starter, a setup man, a middle reliever and a matchup specialist; he has seen his ERA balloon to 10.43 in 2017 with Baltimore before straightening his career with a cutter. This? This isn’t much different from all of that. He’s still just throwing a baseball.
“I’ve been doing this for a while now,” Nuño said. “It’s just all about getting outs. People like when you get outs; they want to see you get outs. So when you get outs, you stay around longer. That’s the plan.”