The coronavirus pandemic may have cancelled spring training, but it hasn’t stopped the Nationals from preparing their roster for Opening Day.
Washington released Hunter Strickland on Saturday as part of a flurry of moves that saw four players optioned to AAA-Fresno, seven assigned to minor-league camp and another released (David Hernandez). Strickland’s release came as the biggest surprise, especially after the team tendered him a contract this offseason and coaches spoke highly of him at the start of camp.
“Last year, we traded for him because we obviously thought he can help us,” manager Davey Martinez told reporters in early March, as quoted by MLB.com. “We knew coming in that he was not quite there health-wise, but we feel like this year is going to be a big year for him.”
But less than eight months after the Nationals acquired him, Strickland is a free agent. The decision opens up a spot both on the 40-man roster and in their bullpen. General manager Mike Rizzo has already indicated the team plans to use the newly added 26th active roster spot on a reliever, giving them eight bullpen spots to fill by Opening Day.
The locks to make the bullpen are closer Sean Doolittle, set-up men Will Harris and Daniel Hudson, right-handers Tanner Rainey and Wander Suero as well as lefty Roenis Elías. Another spot is likely to go to the loser of the competition for the fifth-starter job, either Austin Voth or Joe Ross.
That leaves one spot remaining, with several names looking to fill it.
On the 40-man roster, there are four relievers who could make a push for the major-league club: Ryne Harper, Kyle Finnegan, James Bourque and Austen Williams. The sample sizes aren’t very large for any of them this spring but the best among them has been Bourque, who had a 2.84 ERA in six appearances before the spring season was cancelled.
However, all four of those pitchers have minor-league options, which could push the Nationals to maintain maximum roster flexibility by signing a non-roster invitee to fill the roster spot left behind by Strickland. Javy Guerra, Kevin Quackenbush, Fernando Abad and Sam Freeman all fit that mold and still remain in consideration after surviving the Nationals’ first two rounds of cuts.
Abad and Freeman are both lefties, an area the Nationals could be motivated to address. Washington is slated to enter the season with just two southpaws in its bullpen: Doolittle and Elías. Neither figures to be used in matchup situations, as Doolittle will handle ninth-inning duties and Elías has reverse splits.
While the three-batter minimum has rendered pure lefty specialists obsolete, a reliever who could be relied on against lefty-heavy chunks of opposing lineups would still be valuable. Freeman has solid numbers against hitters from both sides of the plate. Abad, who pitched for the Nationals in 2013, has allowed a .661 career opponents’ OPS against lefties (compared to .750 vs. right-handed hitters).
The Nationals have plenty of time to make their final decision, especially after MLB announced Monday that the season will be suspended eight weeks following recommendations from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. If and when the club reconvenes and players get ramped up for the regular season, filling the final spot in the bullpen will become an immediate priority.
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