In Davey Martinez’s pre-game press conference, he announced a series of moves for the Nationals, which has the 26-man roster for Opening Day pretty much set.
Jeter Downs and Paolo Espino have been optioned to AAA.
Alex Colomé, Andrés Machado, and Wily Peralta have been reassigned to the minor-league camp.
It’s not official yet, but Matt Adams will probably be sent to AAA, according to a tweet by Mark Zuckerman.
This is currently the roster of the Nationals:
Catcher: Keibert Ruiz, Riley Adams
Infield: Joey Meneses, Dominic Smith, Luis Garcia, CJ Abrams, Jeimer Candelario, Michael Chavis, Illdemaro Vargas
Outfield: Lane Thomas, Victor Robles, Corey Dickerson, Alex Call
Rotation: Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore, Patrick Corbin, Trevor Williams, Chad Kuhl
Bullpen: Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, Erasmo Ramirez, Carl Edwards Jr., Mason Thompson, Thaddeus Ward, Hobie Harris, Anthony Banda
That’s 26 players, and expect those 26 to be on the 26-man roster come Opening Day this Thursday. There are still several days left for changes by picking players off waivers, and manager Martinez has addressed this.
Who’s going to be the fifth starter? Who’s going to make the bullpen? Who’s going to get the last spot on the bench? These were the three questions heading into the last several days of Spring Training, and they’ve all seemed to be answered as of now. Let’s take a look and see if the Nationals made the right decisions.
Chad Kuhl Deservedly Gets the Fifth Spot
The Nationals rotation was set heading into Spring Training, but the injury of Cade Cavalli opened up a spot. Chad Kuhl replaced Cavalli in his next turn of the rotation and did well in his last two starts. 10.1 IP 3 ER 11 K’s 3 BB. It’s just spring, but those are solid numbers. Kuhl pounded the strike, generated some swings and misses, and he wasn’t hit too hard. Kuhl had a bad year in Colorado last year, but that was expected since he relies on his slider, curveball, and changeup to be effective, and the elevation of Coors Field negates some of the movement on those pitches.
Kuhl was about an average MLB pitcher during his time with the Pirates. In 84 starts, he sported a 4.44 ERA 95 ERA+) across 400+ innings and he walked 4.0/9 and struck out 8.1/9. None of his pitches are too threatening, but his slider has shown the ability to consistently miss barrels. Since PNC Park is a more comparable environment to Nationals Park than Coors Field, it’s reasonable to expect Kuhl to deliver around 150 innings with an ERA of 4.50-5.00. That would be a decent performance from a number-five starter and better than almost anything the Nationals got last year.
Paolo Espino to be Streched out as a Starter
Paolo Espino has been extremely versatile for the Nationals since he arrived in 2021. He’s been the long man in the bullpen and has started without hesitation. Espino was a contender for the bullpen since he’s had a 3.41 ERA as a reliever, much better than 5.21 out of the rotation. He continued to perform well this spring, as he’s only given up one run in 8 innings so far. Unfortunately, the injury of Cade Cavalli had to change plans, and the Nationals required some additional starting arms. Kuhl took over Cavalli’s spot, so the Nationals felt it was best to have Espino as the first man up from AAA if any changes to the rotation were required.
Espino has struggled as a starter (5.21 ERA), but the other options aren’t great. Cory Abbott had a 6.00 ERA in 9 starts last year. Evan Lee and Jackson Tetreault are still getting adjusted from last year’s injuries, and Wily Peralta has an ERA above 11 this spring and a FIP almost 2 runs higher than his ERA in the last two seasons suggests his success was due to good luck. Espino isn’t a great option, but he’s the best option as of now, and given the Nationals’ recent tendency for frequent pitcher injuries, the “secret weapon” will be back in the MLB soon this year.
Anthony Banda Uses Lefty Privilege to Make the Team
Anthony Banda was the only left-handed reliever left in camp since Doolittle won’t be ready for Opening Day. This is the only reason he’s making the final 26. Banda has struggled in his professional career, with a 5.76 ERA in the big league and a 4.08 ERA in the minor leagues. He’s given up 7 ER in 11 IP so far this spring. To his credit, his last five innings have been scoreless, but it shouldn’t have been enough to get him on the team. This means Andres Machado receives the short end of the stick.
Machado had a 3.34 ERA over 59.1 IP last year. He’s been a solid arm out of the bullpen over the past two years. Although his FIP was 4.51 and a strikeout rate of 7.0/9 paired with a walk rate of 3.9/9 isn’t encouraging, and it may not be sustainable to put up good numbers.
Alex Colome was a top reliever from 2015-20, but he’s been declining ever since. He had a 5.74 ERA last year, and while his strikeout rate goes down, he’s been walking more batters and is giving up more hard hits. Colome’s struggles have continued this spring as he doesn’t have the stuff anymore to succeed at this level. It looks like he’ll be facing father time soon.
The Nationals do have a tendency to go with veterans, but they made the right move by not sticking with Colome. Still picking Banda because he was the only southpaw left was the wrong move because he’s been hit hard at the MLB level before, and it will continue to happen this year. There are some concerns with Machado the deeper his numbers are dug into, but he’s put out solid performances the last two seasons, and he should’ve been chosen over Banda for the bullpen.
Michael Chavis has Locked up the Final Spot on the bench?
With Alex Call having a stellar spring, the competition for the final spot for position players came down to Jeter Downs, Matt Adams, and Michael Chavis. Downs provides great defense and speed on the basepath, but he needs further development as he’s struggled at AAA. Downs hit .197/.316/.412 (95 wRC+) at AAA last year, which was an improvement from 2021. He’s shown the ability to hit for power and walk, but he isn’t making enough contact. His strikeout rate was 29%, and that BABIP of .235 has to go up for him to be a productive MLB hitter. Downs was once a top-50 prospect with the Red Sox, but they rushed his development and had him skip AA, which is an important level as it’s a huge leap from A+. Sending Downs to AAA to get consistent at-bats is the right move because he’ll get better by doing that instead of riding the bench.
Matt Adams had to play Independent League baseball last year after a horrific performance for the Braves and Rockies in 2020-21. Adams had an OPS of .881 with 27 HR in 90 games which generated enough interest to get a minor league deal from the Nationals. He’s done well this spring, hitting .333 with 6 XBH in 39 at-bats. Unfortunately for him, other than his bat, Adams has no value. He can only play at 1B, and his defense there is below average, and he can’t run the bases. Adams being an LHB with power, alongside being a part of the 2019 team, was enticing for the Nationals, but him not making the team is the right choice. The Nationals need power, but Adams has gone too long without producing at the highest level, and the team already has several options to play at 1B/DH.
This leaves us with Michael Chavis, and he’s all set to make the team, barring any additions via free agency, waivers, or trades which seems unlikely. Chavis has been a below-average (84 OPS+) hitter in his career, but his value comes in his defensive versatility. He can handle himself at 1B, 2B, 3B, RF, and LF. Chavis won’t get much playing time, but his being on the team will allow players like Jake Alu, Stone Garrett, and Jeter Downs to get consistent at-bats at AAA instead of being on the bench.
Keston Hiura is a player the Nationals should look to get. The 26-year-old was once a top prospect for the Brewers, and he was called up in 2019 after sporting an OPS of 1.088 in 57 games. Hiura thrived by hitting .303/.368/.570 (138 OPS+) in 84 MLB games with 19 HR and 23 2B. It went downhill for him from 2020-21 as he hit .192/.279/.362 (71 OPS+). Hiura didn’t reach his 2019 levels in 2022, but it was a bounceback. .226/.316/.449 (115 OPS+) was his slash line, and he was a solid performer at the plate.
He won’t be making the Brewers’ final 26 because he’s struggled massively this spring, and he doesn’t have any minor-league options left. Hiura is only 26, so he still has some time to reach his full potential, and even a 115 OPS+ is still a good player. If he doesn’t pan out, he’d serve as a utility option like Chavis since he can play at 1B, 2B, and LF. The Nationals should seriously look at acquiring him.
Mason Thompson, Thad Ward, and Hobie Harris Make the Team
Thad Ward was picked in the Rule-5 Draft after being left unprotected by the Red Sox. Ward had a great 2019, but he had to get Tommy John surgery early in 2021. He made seven starts at AA last year and wowed everyone with a 2.43 ERA and 41 K’s in 33.1 IP. Ward will be a reliever because he doesn’t have any experience above AA, and the Nationals will have to keep him on the 26-man roster for the entirety of the year to prevent him from going on waivers. Ward being a long reliever is a possibility, but he’ll most likely be the low-leverage guy. He could make some spot starts throughout the year since Gore will be on an innings limit or due to doubleheaders. The key will be for him to get through 2023 without performing too badly so he can focus on being a starter in 2024.
Mason Thompson making the shouldn’t be a surprise since he had a 2.92 ERA last year, but the Nationals have been reluctant with him, and he did have a few minor league options remaining. It’s a good thing he’s on the team, but they may use him as a long reliever since Espino will be at AAA, and Ward is inexperienced. This won’t be a great use of him since his high-velocity sinker, and wipeout slider gives him a high ceiling to be a late-inning arm, potentially a closer. Thompson has shown the ability to go long, as he recorded a 9-out save in St. Louis last year. Either way, it’s great that he’s on the team, and it’ll be interesting to see how he’s used.
Hobie Harris was picked off of waivers in the offseason. He’s been in the minor leagues since 2015 and had his best season last year. In 53 innings at AAA, he had an ERA of 2.04 and struck out 56 batters. His control is an issue since he’s walked 4.2/9 in his minor league career, and it went up to 4.8/9 last year, but he’s only walked one batter in his nine innings this spring. He’s also given up only one run. Harris’s best pitches are a fastball that can reach triple digits and a wipeout changeup. The control issues are there, but it’s great that he’ll be receiving an opportunity to showcase his ability at the MLB level and possibly turn into a solid reliever.
This roster isn’t going to win 80 games or stay the same throughout the year, but it has a chance to do better than 2022 and win 65-70 games which would be a significant step forward. The keys for the Nationals in 2023 will be for the bullpen can be more consistent, the starting pitching will be much better, young players to show improvement, and for this year’s veterans to be better than last year’s.