WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On the last day of spring training, as the Washington Nationals packed and prepared for one final game, Manager Dave Martinez gave a vague peek into his early-season plans.
He wants to use Jeremy Hellickson in the bullpen to start the year. And utility man Howie Kendrick, who has been recovering from a mild left hamstring strain, will remain in Florida for more rehab before he joins the team. This is connected in a roundabout way. Martinez is considering having eight relievers on his initial 25-man roster — one more than usual — and that could be Hellickson for the first three series or another pitcher that shortens the team’s bench to four position players until Kendrick is healthy.
That would give the team nine relievers to start, counting Hellickson, which could seem excessive given the amount of early off days. But if Martinez chooses that direction, the extra reliever probably would be in Kendrick’s spot since the Nationals have a second versatile utility player in Wilmer Difo. The Opening Day bench, then, would be a catcher, Difo, first baseman Matt Adams and outfielder Andrew Stevenson because Michael A. Taylor is still working back from left knee and left hip sprains. Stevenson would make the team over Adrian Sanchez because Washington needs Taylor’s replacement to be a capable center fielder. Sanchez would make the 25-man roster if Martinez wants a position player in place of Kendrick. If he wants another reliever, Wander Suero and Austen Williams are fighting for the final bullpen spot, and both could start the year in Washington.
There are a lot of possibilities. They will be untangled by 1:05 p.m. on Thursday, when Max Scherzer takes the mound to face the New York Mets. And, no matter what, the Nationals want to ease Kendrick back so his hamstring isn’t a recurring issue. Kendrick plays second base, first, third and the corners in the outfield, and he missed almost all of last season with a torn right Achilles’ tendon. Staying in West Palm Beach will allow him to get at-bats in minor league games as the team carefully controls his workload. The next step is ranging for groundballs and running at full speed.
“I’ve done my hamstrings before, and I’ve been hardheaded about it where I’ve hurt it again later and you’re out more time,” Kendrick said Sunday. “So I think the biggest thing is trying to feel great and feel really confident about where I’m at and trusting it a lot more. I trust it now, but I know I’m not 100 percent. So there’s no point for me to try to be there for Opening Day when I know I could risk injuring myself again.”
The Hellickson decision centered on keeping Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg on normal rest to start the year. Martinez expects to use him as a “long man” if a starter has a short outing or the score is lopsided. Scherzer and Strasburg could make three starts — while Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez have two — before Hellickson joins the rotation during a three-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies from April 8 to 10. That would line up Hellickson to appear in the final game of that series, and Scherzer would have an extra day of rest before his next start. The rotation would settle into a regular five-man schedule from there. Hellickson made his first of 19 starts on April 16 last season because he signed with the Nationals so late.
This also sets up Scherzer to face the Phillies and Bryce Harper at Nationals Park on April 3. Mark that date.
The Nationals don’t have many short-term decisions to make. Kendrick’s and Taylor’s absences will test the team’s depth. Reliever Koda Glover will start the season on the injured list with a forearm strain. When Martinez was asked Sunday whether there were any other updates, after six weeks of looking ahead to right now, he leaned back in his office chair and offered a parting line.
“Yeah,” the manager said while stretching. “We leave today.”
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