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There is a small group of Nationals pitchers competing to be this year’s Austen Williams. Yes, this year’s Austen Williams.
That may seem odd after Williams, a 27-year-old reliever, missed almost all of 2019 with a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder. But once upon a time, he was the first pitcher called on to help a struggling bullpen.
Williams was promoted in mid-April to replace an injured Justin Miller. And the Nationals chose Williams, in part, because he dominated in spring training, not allowing a run in eight appearances while retiring 23 of the 25 batters he faced and logging seven strikeouts. He flashed the swing-and-miss stuff the Nationals needed, with a mid-90s fastball and biting curve.
The rest of Williams’s story didn’t go as well. He made two appearances, recorded one out, and went to the injured list after he allowed six earned runs. Yet that initial call-up provided some focus on an important element of February and March: It is when the pecking order of depth relievers takes shape.
A logical projection for the Nationals’ eight-man Opening Day bullpen is Sean Doolittle, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, Hunter Strickland, Roenis Elías and whoever does not make the rotation between Joe Ross and Austin Voth. That would leave Ryne Harper, Kyle Finnegan, Aaron Barrett, James Bourque and, well, Williams, as the 40-man relievers who want to be the next Williams.
“Think about it this way,” a member of the Nationals’ front office said. “Once spring training is over, you no longer have a direct audition in front of [General Manager Mike] Rizzo and Davey [Martinez]. Riz doesn’t get out to the minors that often, and Fresno is obviously really far away. Davey only sees you right now. So this is the chance to make a lasting impression and be in the mix when arms are needed.”
It’s not that the front office doesn’t evaluate minor league relievers in-season. It does, constantly, with a mix of analytics, video and feedback from coaches and scouts. But Rizzo is at almost every spring exhibition, and Martinez is always watching from the dugout. Williams got the first crack to stick and wasn’t able to do it. Rainey later did after not breaking camp with the Nationals last March, coming up in mid-May instead and making 52 regular season appearances followed by 6⅔ innings in the playoffs.
The Nationals are going to need more than eight relievers to complete the year. They may need more than eight relievers to complete April. Williams showed that shining in spring — and earning an early opportunity — does not lead to a fixed spot in the bullpen. But he also showed what’s at stake in what are often described as meaningless games.
Harris tweaked his left abdomen and will be evaluated again in three to four days. The 35-year-old joined the Nationals on a three-year, $24 million deal this winter and has not yet appeared in a spring training game. The team had been slow playing him — just like with Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson — but now Harris will be set back after feeling a pain in his stomach following an extended bullpen Tuesday. Martinez wants to be extra cautious given how early it is, and how important Harris will be for his bullpen.
Erick Fedde has often talked about using the knowledge around him to become a better pitcher. That’s included asking Max Scherzer about ways to improve his own cutter. It has included asking Stephen Strasburg about ways to improve his own change-up. And on Wednesday, it included working with Aníbal Sánchez on the finer points of throwing a sinker.
Fedde turned 27 this week and is in an odd situation. He’s technically in a fifth starter competition with Ross and Voth. But since Fedde is the only one with a remaining minor league option, it is likely he spends this year as a swing player. His first outing brought mixed results; his pitch count spiked and he could not finish the second inning. Soaking up wisdom may be more important than ever.
So there he was in the bullpen Wednesday, nodding along while Sánchez adjusted Fedde’s sinker grip. Fedde then fired a pitch that made catcher Yan Gomes yell, “Whoa! That cut and then sank, two different directions.”
“Really?” Fedde asked with a smile. “It cut, too?”
“The snake!” Sánchez yelled from behind the mound. “We call that the snake!”
Martinez has dropped a lot of hints on how he may fill out his roster, and it’s smart at this point of the calendar to take each with grains of salt. But when he was asked about Emilio Bonifacio, and called the veteran utility player a “prototype 26th man,” it was hard to ignore.
Bonifacio, 34, is on a minor league deal with a nonroster invite to camp, and has not played in the majors since 2017. The Nationals’ 40-man roster is full, meaning that if they want to add Bonifacio or any other player, they will have to get rid of someone else. There are ways to do that given that infielder Wilmer Difo is out of options and would be placed on waivers if he does not make the team come Opening Day. But Bonifacio would only be in the picture if Carter Kieboom falls out of it.
Right now, Kieboom is looking to earn the everyday job at third base. Yet if he doesn’t and heads to the minors instead, Washington would have a final bench spot to fill. One of Difo or Adrián Sanchez could make sense as an extra infielder. Martinez has entertained the idea of keeping Andrew Stevenson as a fifth outfielder and is intrigued by his left-handed bat and pinch-hitting numbers. Then there’s Bonifacio.
The switch-hitter has played shortstop, second base, third, left, center and right throughout an 11-year career. He also has been praised for his clubhouse energy. If the Nationals are looking for one last reserve, it could be a light-hitting utility man with a reliable glove. That may even be the best fit. Bonifacio already has played center and second this spring and showed his speed with a triple on Monday.
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