Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Alberto Gonzalez could be the odd man out on the Nationals bench.
Or, I should say, the Nationals' spring training roster is set. The 25-man roster they ultimately bring back from Viera to the District at the end of March still needs to be sorted out.
This week's changes clarified certain aspects of the roster, but they also left other aspects in flux. The Nats' starting lineup and rotation may look set, but what about their bullpen and bench? And what happens to the guys who miss the cut?
Let's take a closer look at the makeup of this roster as it currently stands, broken down into four categories: the lineup, the rotation, the bullpen and the bench...
There's actually not a lot of mystery left here. The starting infield is set, with Adam LaRoche, Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman around the horn from first to third. Jayson Werth is in right field. Nyjer Morgan is in center field (though don't be surprised if newly acquired utilityman Jerry Hairston gets some playing time in center against left-handed starters).
There probably won't be an everyday catcher, but Ivan Rodriguez will share the job with either Wilson Ramos or Jesus Flores. (The hunch here is that Ramos starts the season in the majors, with Flores at Class AAA.)
Left field is the only real spot up for grabs, with three contenders: Roger Bernadina, Michael Morse and Rick Ankiel. I suppose Hairston could find his way into the mix as well. At this point, you've got to believe manager Jim Riggleman will mix and match these guys, anointing one as the regular starter only if someone earns it.
This may come as a surprise, but the Nationals appear to have their five starters all lined up in mid-January. I know, who could have possibly predicted that one back in October?
But the fact is, the Nats now have five starting pitchers who either: 1) have performed well enough in the past to guarantee themselves a spot, 2) have enough untapped potential to ensure their place, or 3) have a contract that pretty much requires them to pitch every fifth day.
Livan Hernandez qualifies for the first category. He may not qualify as a legitimate staff ace, but the guy is as reliable as they get. He led all Nationals starters in wins, innings and strikeouts (not to mention losses, earned runs and walks) last season. And he was re-signed for $1 million.
Jordan Zimmermann qualifies for the second category. He's yet to put it all together at the big-league level, but he's fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and remains the best major-league-ready pitching prospect this organization has not named Stephen Strasburg.
Jason Marquis, John Lannan and Tom Gorzelanny qualify for the third category. Marquis may have been dreadful last year, but let's not kid ourselves: The guy is making $7.5 million in 2011. Unless he's hurt, he'll get a chance to start the season in the rotation. Perhaps if he continued to struggle, the Nats would cut bait sometime in midseason. But they're not going to do that now.
Lannan has certainly established himself for the better part of three seasons as a legitimate big-league pitcher. Obviously, he needs to rebound from a wildly inconsistent 2010, but the Nationals just gave him a $2.75 million contract. You don't sign a guy for that kind of money unless you're counting on him to make the rotation.
Gorzelanny, meanwhile, signed a $2.1 million contract with the Cubs one day before his trade to D.C. became official. The Nats acquired him to be a part of their starting staff, and Rizzo made it clear during yesterday's conference call that Gorzelanny (provided he's healthy) will be in the Opening Day rotation.
So what happens to guys like Yunesky Maya, Ross Detwiler and Chien-Ming Wang? Sounds like the Nationals believe Maya (who made only five minor-league starts last summer before getting promoted) needs more seasoning. The same is probably true for Detwiler, who just needs to pitch every fifth day someplace after an injury-plagued 2010. Wang, meanwhile, figures to open the season on the DL, though the club still hopes he'll finally complete his recovery from shoulder surgery in short order and force his way onto the big-league roster.
There may not be an established closer in the group, but there do appear to be six relievers assured of roster spots: Drew Storen, Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, Doug Slaten, Henry Rodriguez (who is out of options) and recently signed Todd Coffey. Slaten, Rodriguez and Coffey could, in theory, be cut loose with little penalty, but each is more likely to make the club than to get dumped.
So all of a sudden, there's only one relief job up for grabs this spring, with no shortage of candidates in the running: Collin Balester, Craig Stammen, Chad Gaudin, Rule 5 draftee Elvin Ramirez, Adam Carr, Cole Kimball, Atahualpa Severino. And the Nats could always decide to keep a starter like Maya or Detwiler as a long reliever, though that would seem counter-productive toward their ultimate development.
One thing is clear: The Nationals are going to need someone in their bullpen to be capable of pitching three or more innings on a regular basis. Someone to hold the Miguel Batista role. Stammen and Gaudin would seem to have a leg up on the rest in that category.
This is an area that has undergone a significant overhaul this winter. What had been one of the least-productive benches in baseball now boasts several veterans with track records, not to mention the versatility to play multiple positions.
There will be five spots to fill. Obviously, the backup catcher (whether Ramos or Flores) occupies one spot. Let's assume Bernadina is the Opening Day left fielder, which puts Ankiel and Morse on the bench as well. Hairston is assured of a job after signing for $2 million.
That's four of five spots, with pretty much every position on the field covered. Morse can play all four corner positions. Hairston can play three infield positions, left and center fields. So the 25th man doesn't necessarily need to fill any one role.
Having said that, Alberto Gonzalez's presence suddenly doesn't seem to be required. It's always nice to have an extra middle infielder, but as we saw last year, Riggleman struggled to find playing time for Gonzalez unless someone else was injured. Plus, the Nats also signed veteran Alex Cora to a minor-league deal this week if they decide they want another infielder.
Perhaps the club is best-served using that final bench spot for a pure pinch-hitter, someone who doesn't need to do much in the field but can be counted on to step to the plate in the eighth or ninth inning and record a clutch hit. And since Hairston, Morse and the backup catcher all hit right-handed, it sure would make sense for the pinch-hitter to swing from the left side of the plate.
Sure sounds like Matt Stairs' job to lose, doesn't it?
So, to recap, here's how my 25-man Opening Day roster looks at the moment...
CATCHERS (2): Ivan Rodriguez, Wilson Ramos
INFIELDERS (5): Adam LaRoche, Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Jerry Hairston.
OUTFIELDERS (6): Jayson Werth, Nyjer Morgan, Roger Bernadina, Rick Ankiel, Michael Morse, Matt Stairs
STARTERS (5): Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan, Tom Gorzelanny
RELIEVERS (7): Drew Storen, Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, Doug Slaten, Henry Rodriguez, Todd Coffey, Chad Gaudin