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Nationals Scene and Heard: Team has a staff member opt-out

Nationals Scene and Heard: Team has a staff member opt-out

WASHINGTON -- Tuesday night was a quieter one in Nationals Park. Multiple members of the bullpen pitched against the same hitters over and over in what was less an intrasquad game and more drill work.

Will Harris, Daniel Hudson, Javy Guerra, Aaron Barrett, Kevin Quackenbush and Ryne Harper pitched. Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Starlin Castro, Carter Kieboom and Eric Thames hit the most.

So, let’s get started with what was going on at the park:

-- Davey Martinez announced Tuesday night that batting practice pitcher Ali Modami has opted out of the 2020 season. Modami throws BP as a left-handed pitcher, but he’s also one of the fixtures at the park since joining the team in 2011.

His initial work was often with Bryce Harper in the batting cages before games. Modami always pitched to Harper, who did not take BP on the field. Overall, Modami threw a massive amount of pitches on a daily basis to whomever was ready to swing.

Modami added good-luck charm to his duties in 2019 when he was tasked with carrying the lineup card to home plate Friday, May 24, when the Nationals were 19-31 and staggered home from New York. They won -- in sloppy fashion -- that night. Modami went out the next day, and every day from then on.

You might also remember him as Brian Dozier’s celebratory transportation in the dugout. Modami is another part of a would-be normal situation who will not be around in 2020.

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-- A staffer who is back is hitting coach Kevin Long. Tuesday night was his first in Nationals Park since intake testing which forced him into quarantine.

“I know he had a mask on, but he was smiling ear to ear,” Martinez said. “He was dying to come back, and he’s back now. That’s one guy we got back. Hopefully, we get the rest of the guys back soon.”

-- Wednesday marks two weeks since intake testing began. The Nationals performed rolling testing the first week of “Summer Camp” and eight players have not been seen since. Among them are Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Howie Kendrick.

Martinez said recently the team is following District-mandated protocols -- which are more stringent than the ones put in place by MLB’s operations manual -- when deciding who will come back.

If any of the players went into quarantine July 1 or 2, they are nearing the end of their 14-day stay in such isolation. So, are they close to joining the team just three days before the exhibition game and eight before the start of the season?

“Honestly, I don’t know that answer,” Martinez said. “Every morning I wake up, all I can do is ask my medical staff, ‘Are they coming?’ and they give me a no. Hopefully, one of these days when I wake up and ask if they are coming, they give me a yes. That’s all I can say about it. I do know we can’t wait to get all these guys back and be in full force. Hopefully it will be soon.”

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-- Harris worked a clean inning Tuesday. His recovery from a spring-time abdominal strain is complete and he often worked from a mound in Baton Rouge while everyone waited for the season to begin. Tuesday was the first time he’s faced hitters since the 2019 World Series.

“I’ve thrown a lot of bullpens,” Harris said. “The reps are there, as far as just pitching and my arm. It’s just now getting the feedback from hitters and basically the validation of, OK, my stuff is doing what I think it’s supposed to be doing and I’m getting the swings I’m accustomed to getting. I got to have a bigger sample size, but with all the technology today you can pretty much know where you’re at pretty quickly. So, me throwing [Tuesday], I’ll take a look at it [Wednesday] when I get here, make sure my stuff’s doing what I’m accustomed to it doing, if it’s not, figure it out before my next outing.”

-- A quick Harris quip about the idea he might be used frequently at the start of the season. “If you don’t want to throw 18 times in a month, give up some runs and you won’t throw 18 times in a month.”

-- The Nationals worked on preparation for the new extra-innings rule this season which will place a runner on second base to start the 10th inning. They immediately tried a “daylight” pickoff play -- when the shortstop cuts in behind a runner leading off second, the catcher signals there is space, or “daylight”, between the fielder and runner, and the pitcher pivots for a pickoff attempt. Tuesday was the first time they started to fold this into their daily routine.

-- Martinez said to-go meals are prepared at the end of workouts so players and staff can leave with food and go straight home.

“We’re making it a point for these guys, when you leave here, you’re pretty much going to a hotel or you’re going to your place that you have and you’re staying in,” Martinez said. “If we’re really going to do this and keep everybody safe, I tell these guys all the time, you can’t be messing around. You’ve got to really take it seriously. One, I don’t want to get sick. Two, I don’t want anybody else around here getting sick. You’ve got to be smart about everything we do.”

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Nationals’ need for left-handed relief help may give Seth Romero a chance

Nationals’ need for left-handed relief help may give Seth Romero a chance

The Nationals’ left-handed bullpen options took another step backward Wednesday when Sam Freeman had to exit the game in New York after throwing 14 pitches.

Freeman has a flexor strain, according to manager Davey Martinez, and will have an MRI on Friday when the team returns to Washington. He also told Martinez he “felt something pop” in his left elbow during the outing. Freeman had Tommy John surgery in 2010. Flexor strains and such “pop” descriptions are often precursors to UCL tears which then require the now-famous procedure.

So, the Nationals need left-handed bullpen help. It could come from the taxi squad and via one of their key prospects, Seth Romero.

Sean Doolittle is not pitching well. He’s been removed from high- and medium-leverage situations. Roenis Elías was placed on the 60-day injured list July 26 because of a left elbow flexor strain. Elías can return to the team 45 days after being placed on the 60-day injured list. It’s one of the oddities in the 2020 season.

For now, it’s Doolittle, and no one else. Will Harris, expected to be activated Thursday, is very effective against left-handed hitters. But, the Nationals will need more than just Harris.

Which is where Romero could come in. He was the team’s first-round pick in 2017. He was sent home from spring training in 2018 for an undisclosed violation of team rules before needing Tommy John surgery later that year. He worked at the alternate training site in Fredericksburg this year before being added to the Nationals’ five-man taxi squad for their first 2020 regular-season road trip.

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Romero’s service-time clock will not be affected if he is placed on the active roster. Any player making his debut after the sixth day of the season will not receive credit for a full year, allowing the organization to retain six full years of control before a player can become a free agent.

The Nationals have 39 players on their 40-man roster. So, adding Romero is not a problem in that regard.

However, the team is jammed when it comes to their 28-man active roster. Freeman will be placed on the injured list, creating a spot for Harris. That’s a clean swap. But, another player would have to be removed to make room for Romero to join the active roster.

Two options seem to exist: reliever Ryne Harper or utilityman Wilmer Difo.

Harper allowed five runs in his inning Wednesday night against the Mets. He is repetitive to a degree. The case for him to remain was made in his earlier appearances when Harper started the year with five clean outings. He’s been hit hard since.

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Previously signing Josh Harrison means Difo could be an option for removal from the active roster. Prospect Luis Garcia, on the taxi squad like Romero, is looming if the team needs a multi-positional player in case of emergency (though Garcia is not on the 40-man roster, which would complicate him getting to the active roster this season).

What’s clear is the Nationals need to do something. And, that could be moving Romero into the mix.

“I’m going to talk to Mike [Rizzo] and see what the gameplan is moving forward,” Martinez said. “Obviously, we got to keep getting Doolittle right, then we’ll see what happens. I like the way Seth’s been throwing the baseball. He threw the other day and he threw really well. Maybe he does get an opportunity. That’s something I’m going to sit with Mike about and see what we come up with.”

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Will Juan Soto follow the same path as Mookie Betts?

Will Juan Soto follow the same path as Mookie Betts?

The gasps came again in New York on Wednesday, this time when Juan Soto ripped his hands in and then through a slider which meandered up and inside. The resulting fly ball went 466 feet to right field, confusing camera operators and announcers alike. Nationals play-by-play man Bob Carpenter, calling road games from Nationals Park, wasn’t quite sure where the ball went or landed because it left camera view. The Mets’ broadcasting crew had a better view in Citi Field. Ron Darling uttered a precise summary while the ball traveled: “Whoa.”

Soto hit a 463-foot home run two days earlier which drew similar awe. Darling said then he had never seen a ball hit to that part of Citi Field -- dead center beyond the iconic rising apple. And, what Soto is doing overall is rarely seen. He’s hit two of the five longest home runs in Citi Field since 2015 (Nos. 3 and 5, respectively) in three days. He tied Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Robinson with 60 home runs before turning 22 years old thanks to the two he hit Wednesday night. Only four players -- Mel Ott, Tony Conigliaro, Eddie Matthews and Ronald Acuña Jr. -- have more before that age. Soto turns 22 on Oct. 25. He is being shorted 109 games this season because of the abbreviated schedule and his late start in it. Yet, he’s still chasing down history.

The short season makes comparison points for his future fluid. However, he is running steady with the early days of one player in particular: Mookie Betts. The far-away question for the Nationals is whether their paths when no longer under team control will go the same.

First, to now. Soto’s first home run Wednesday prompted a response from the official NASA Twitter account when it was asked to locate the launch to right field (“We'll look for it when we get back to the Moon in 2024. Cool?”). But, there was a detail attached to his second home run which may be more telling of his actual ability.

Left-handed Mets reliever Chasen Shreve was able to get Soto to rollover a fastball away for a double play in the third inning. Left-handed pitchers typically try for this precise outcome from Soto by pitching him outside. He often foils it by not taking the bait and instead taking a walk or pushing the ball the other way. Against Shreve, Soto left his principles: he swung at a pitch outside of the strike zone and did so with more of a hook swing than one designed to drive the ball somewhere between left-center field and right-center field. Stay through the middle and good things will happen. It’s a mantra for him. He vacated the idea, then pulled his helmet off at first base and bounced it off the ground following the double play.

He faced another left-handed pitcher in his next at-bat. Justin Wilson tried the same approach as Shreve. He was throwing away, but not far enough. A fastball caught the outside portion of the plate. Soto had cleared his head, drove through the pitch, and hit an opposite-field home run. That, more than distance, shows mental genius at 21 years old.

“He makes in-game adjustments better than any young hitter I’ve ever seen,” Davey Martinez said.

RELATED: SOTO BLASTS LONGEST HOME RUN OF HIS CAREER AGAIN

Now, to the future, via the past. Betts came up as a 21-year-old in Boston. Soto is 21. Betts played half a season at that age, moved to 19th in American League MVP voting the following year, then put his name among the elite his third season when he finished second in MVP voting. He also won a Gold Glove and went to the All-Star Game. Betts pulled together a 9.5 bWAR season in 2016 as a 23-year-old outfielder.

Soto finished second to Acuña Jr. in National League Rookie of the Year voting in his first season. He ascended to ninth in NL MVP voting as a 20-year-old via a 4.6 bWAR season. His current OPS is 1.444. It won’t last. And, this is not a full season to chase Betts’ MVP-runner-up numbers. It does indicate further ascension.

It is also another year of Soto’s service-time clock. The Nationals hold team control of Soto until 2025. Next year he will again make a pittance relative to his peers, when he receives a slight raise from the $629,400 he is making this year. The following year, 2022, he can start to cash in  via arbitration. His salary will progressively climb year after year from there -- with several chances to set a record for arbitration pay should his play be maintained.

The rub arrives in 2025. Soto can become a free agent that year. So can Victor Robles. And, Soto is represented by Scott Boras, who is loathe to do anything other than enter free agency with his clients.

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So, the Nationals will eventually be faced with a similar decision the Boston Red Sox needed to make with Betts: can they afford their star? If not, should he be traded?

Boston was in a bind. It dumped current cash (David Price) and future cash (Betts) in exchange for three prospects. In essence, it was an organizational reboot.

The Nationals don’t tend to operate that way. They have not been forced to rebuild since the initial buildup from franchise newbie to contender was completed. They also do not want to exceed the Competitive Balance Tax whenever possible, pick singular spots for big contracts and are yet to approach Soto about an extension. Needing to choose between him and Robles complicates the process further.

So, for now, maybe it’s best to watch the mammoth homers, listen to out-of-town announcers react with shock, then giggle at tweets from NASA. Four more years of Soto in Washington are guaranteed. Nothing beyond that is.

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