In search of 25 good men
So after last night's round of cuts (and I'll get to them in a bit), the roster has a lot more clarity, though most of these moves were telegraphed long ago. (How were they telegraphed? Well, when they signed Ronnie Belliard as a non-roster player, Manny Acta, who happens to serve as the manager of the team, said, "He's on the team." So read between the lines there, will ya?)
A week from today, the team will be in Columbus, Ohio, for an exhibition game against the Orioles at the site of their Class AAA team. The following day, the Nats and O's will play in Norfolk, Va., and the next day (Sat., March 31) the two teams will face each other at RFK Stadium, the final exhibition game of the season. GM Jim Bowden said earlier this week: "I don't think all the decisions will be made in Florida," meaning the final cuts will occur on those final three days before the season. But realistically, we're talking about only a couple of jobs.
Here's what happened last night: LHP Billy Traber optioned to Class AAA Columbus; RHP Josh Hall reassigned to minor league camp; OF Michael Restovich and INF Bernie Castro outrighted to Columbus; contracts of INF Ronnie Belliard and C-1B-OF Robert Fick purchased.
In plain English, this means that Fick and Belliard are on the team. They were placed on the 40-man roster, and space was created on the 40-man by jettisoning Restovich and Castro. Those two now have a few days to decide whether they'll accept an assignment to Columbus (Acta indicated Restovich was leaning toward it, not sure on Castro) or become free agents.
The most interesting aspect of that whole thing, I think, was Traber, who had pitched fairly well this spring (1 ER in 5 IP). But the club is more interested in him as a reliever than as a starter. Acta said late last night that he thought Traber could best help the team in the future as a left-handed specialist. Traber's reaction: "I think if you've pitched in the big leagues, you'll do whatever it takes to get back there." He took it like a pro, and I'd bet money we'll see him soon (not that I would ever bet money).
The other part of that fallout: Acta said they're "locked in" on Micah Bowie and Ray King as the lefties. Again, read between the lines: King will have to be placed on the 40-man, and Bowie -- who pitched well in a brief stint with the Nationals last spring -- appears healthy. But lefty Mike Bacsik, who threw two shutout innings last night and went 11-0 for the Diamondbacks' Class AAA team last year, will be sent down soon.
And then there's this whole Jason Simontacchi issue. His slightly strained groin (and it's actually an adductor muscle down his inner thigh) could screw up the whole rotation. Tim Redding's performance last night normally would have been enough to put him way way way way out of the competition. But now, only Patterson, Hill and Chico are safely in, and it's pretty much Jerome Williams, Joel Hanrahan, Redding and perhaps Levale Speigner and Jason Bergmann (who I still think might be considered "swingmen," able to pitch out of the pen) for two spots as starters.
Complicating matters is the Nationals' schedule. They have no off day in the first week of the season. Normally, teams play on Opening Day, then have an off day the following day. The Nationals' first two seasons opened in such a manner. That has an impact on the pitching staff. Essentially, the fifth starter can be skipped because of the off day, and he wouldn't be needed until, say, April 10th or 12th or something.
No such luck for the Nationals this year. GM Jim Bowden said in an email late last night that he's hoping Simontacchi could be ready by the fifth game of the year, April 7 against Arizona. But if not, there's two spots open. Someone's going to have to pitch those games.
With that, we get to the makeup of the 25-man roster. Here's how I see it playing out, starting with the secure spots:
C Brian Schneider
1B Dmitri Young (who I believe will beat out Travis Lee, because Acta said the team needs offense from the position)
2B Felipe Lopez
SS Cristian Guzman
3B Ryan Zimmerman
LF Ryan Church (or Chris Snelling, but unless Church is traded, which isn't likely to happen until he gets more positive results, I still think he'll start here, unless they decide to put Church in center and move Logan to the bench, but the important point for this discussion is that all three are likely to be on the team)
CF Nook Logan
RF Austin Kearns
Starting pitchers (3):
RHP John Patterson
RHP Shawn Hill
LHP Matt Chico
RHP Chad Cordero
RHP Jon Rauch
RHP Ryan Wagner
LHP Ray King
LHP Micah Bowie
(Luis Ayala already predicted to start year on DL.)
Bench players (4):
C-1B-OF Robert Fick
INF Ronnie Belliard
C Jesus Flores
OF Chris Snelling (or Church or Logan, depending on how the starting lineup falls out)
That's 20 all-but certain players, with five spots left -- two (2) in the rotation, two (2) in the bullpen and one (1) on the bench.
The rotation, obviously, is the biggest mess. I'm still betting on Jerome Williams, who pitches tonight in Kissimmee against the Astros, to secure one of the spots. And who knows on that last one? I'm going to leave that open until the final days.
The bullpen: I have to say I am all but certain Levale Speigner will make it. He's a Rule 5 guy, and if you thought enough of him to take him in that draft, then he certainly hasn't done anything to dissuade you now. He's pitched 8-2/3 innings without giving up a run, seems like a competitor, and is willing to either start or relieve. My guess is he's the "long guy" in the bullpen. (Rule 5, for anyone who doesn't know, means he couldn't be sent down to the minors without being offered to his old team, the Twins, first, and he has to stay on the major league roster all season long).
The last bullpen spot: Saul Rivera? Chris Booker? They like Booker's live arm, and his forkball is intriguing. Rivera pitched fairly well last year in the majors (3.43 ERA in 60-1/3 innings), but he's had a shaky spring at times. I'm leaving Bergmann out of this discussion, because I think -- because he has options left -- he'll be sent to Columbus and groomed as a starter who could, if needed, serve a a long/swing man in the majors.
I'm going to waffle here and not make a choice.
I will not, however, waffle on the final spot on the bench. I think it will be Josh Wilson.
Earlier in the week, I asked Bowden, who is good at giving hints about these things in advance, what his most pleasant surprises of the spring had been. After talking about Felipe Lopez's transition to second base (which he has done without squawking), he brought up Wilson, who was really shaky the first few games, looking like a Class AAA shortstop, but has been stellar since. He's hitting .400 in 30 at-bats, a good sample, and has improved on defense (range isn't great, but hands are nice). It's to the point where two members of the organization -- including one prominent player -- have asked me in the last 24 hours, "What are they going to do with Wilson? He can play."
My guess: They keep him, which means D'Angelo Jimenez (who has also hit this spring but has been had a very poor start defensively) wouldn't make the team. If Wilson makes the cut, he would be used to spell Guzman at shortstop and as a right-handed bat/pinch-runner type. That would allow Belliard, who I don't think would be as effective at shortstop, to be the backup at second and third. Fick would serve as the fifth outfielder, which isn't ideal, but if you're going to carry a 12-man pitching staff, which this team must do, you're going to have to give back something offensively. Fick also is important because the team will almost certainly carry Flores, the Rule 5 catcher who's only 22 and has impressed everybody in the spring, and Fick would be a valuable asset because he can catch, too. (There is the matter of how playing only once every two weeks could stunt Flores's development, and the Nationals are aware of the risk, but they're willing to take it.)
So there you have it, my attempt at being the GM -- while avoiding the really tough decisions at the end there.
I've now wasted 30 minutes of your time (not to mention maybe an hour of my own). Please return to work. I'll likely get you lineups, etc., when I get to Kissimmee.
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