WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — With exactly two weeks left in spring training and only a handful of exhibitions left, the Washington Nationals are nearing some big decisions. A few key veterans are dealing with minor injuries. Carter Kieboom is trying to secure the everyday job at third base. The last couple of Opening Day roster spots remain up for grabs, with answers for the rotation and bullpen taking shape.
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Long live the “Midnight Express.” That’s what some in the organization called the red-eye United flight that shuttled players from Fresno, Calif., to Washington last season. Infielder Jake Noll may have gotten the worst of it. He landed in Philadelphia around 9 a.m. one day in early May, rushed straight to Citizens Bank Park, was penciled into the lineup and made an error on the first ball hit to him. It was hard to blame Noll. Travel from the minors was a mess.
General Manager Mike Rizzo called it “difficult geographically to move players back and forth.” Infielder Adrián Sanchez, who swung between the majors and minors last season, said of traveling from Fresno to Washington: “It was horrible. Real bad experience.” But in their first year with the affiliate, the Nationals figured out a way to sidestep headaches: They began stashing their most trusted swing players with Class AA Harrisburg, and Manager Dave Martinez expects that to continue.
Soon Harrisburg should house the club’s third catcher (Tres Barrera or Raudy Read), its sixth starter (likely Erick Fedde), an extra infielder (Sanchez or Noll) and an extra outfielder (probably Andrew Stevenson). If the Nationals want to keep depth relievers nearby, any of Kyle Finnegan, Ryne Harper, Austen Williams, Aaron Barrett or James Bourque could find themselves with the Senators, and just a two-hour drive from Nationals Park. An assignment there has come to represent a higher standing in the organization.
Washington hopes to avoid the number of injuries it suffered early last season. When Noll was rushed to Philadelphia, he replaced first baseman Matt Adams on the roster. Adams, Trea Turner, Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman were already on the shelf, and Michael A. Taylor was about to join them. It created havoc before the team decided to use Harrisburg more effectively. And now Billy Gardner Jr., the Senators’ first-year manager, could have quite the club.
Adam Eaton has yet to do a full day of baseball activities since tweaking his left hamstring March 3, but Martinez isn’t worried. Not yet. Eaton hit in the cage throughout the weekend and continues to work with medical staff. As for whether he’ll be ready for Opening Day, which is less than three weeks away, Martinez said he will be concerned if Eaton does not appear in a game this week. Otherwise, he will assume the veteran will be healthy to start the season.
Eaton, 31, has battled injuries the past three seasons. He missed almost all of 2017 after tearing his left meniscus and spraining his left ankle on the same play. Side effects then lingered for the next two years, and, in turn, the Nationals are always extra careful when he’s banged up. He appeared in 151 games last year, spending no time on the injured list, and that’s the goal again for 2020.
Closer Sean Doolittle threw 64 sliders last season, according to data compiled by Brooks Baseball, and 63 of them came against left-handed hitters. But the Nationals’ analytics department has given Doolittle a new directive this spring: Try more sliders against righties. The team’s research suggests it could work.
Doolittle recently pointed to a report in his locker, noting that the spin rate, tilt, and vertical and horizontal movement of his slider led to the recommendation. When lefties throw sliders to righties, or vice versa, they typically refer to it as a “back foot” pitch. But Doolittle doesn’t feel his slider has the necessary shape to be considered “back foot.” It has a little more north-to-south movement than a typical slider — “a little slurvey,” Doolittle said — and some characteristics of a curve.`
The 33-year-old threw his four-seam fastball about 88 percent of the time last season. He won’t reinvent himself at this point of his career, but he is looking to innovate whenever possible. A slider to righties is his next attempt.
“Obviously the fastball is most important,” Doolittle said. “But if I can be a more complete pitcher, maybe I can avoid having some bad months like I did last year.”
Teams had before 2 p.m. Sunday to release players on non-guaranteed deals and only owe about one-sixth of their 2020 salary. That applies to those who signed arbitration contracts, which is why Wilmer Difo and Hunter Strickland were ones to keep an eye on this weekend. But Difo and Strickland are still on the roster, at least for now, as the season approaches.
Difo, a 27-year-old infielder, is on much shakier ground than Strickland, a 31-year-old reliever with mid- to high-90s heat. Difo is on a one-year, $1 million contract and is out of minor league options. If he is not on the roster for Opening Day, his tenure with the Nationals could be over. And if they release him within the next 15 days, they would owe around $242,000 on his current deal.
He could be a logical 26th man if Kieboom does not make the team out of spring training. But if Kieboom does, there isn’t really room for Difo to stick around.
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