Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Spring Training 2021 Judgement Day Arrives


Kieboom sent down; a major domino falls for the 2021 nats roster. Photo via Federal Baseball

One major, significant story line that Nats fans have been talking (and fretting) about all spring was decided quickly and decisively on 3/27/21, when the Nats made a slew of moves that greatly shaped their opening day (and longer) roster.

3/27/21 moves announced:

  • Jordy Mercer added
  • Hernán Pérez added
  • Jake Noll DFA’d
  • Carter Kieboom optioned
  • Luis Garcia optioned
  • Sam Clay optioned
  • Kyle McGowin optioned
  • Yadiel Hernández optioned
  • Yasmany Tomás released
  • T.J. McFarland released

(Note; I have updated the big board for all these moves at this point, as well as prior options/releases to this point).

First, lets talk about the obvious; the Infield Impact , both at the MLB level and below. Kieboom was given all spring to win the 3B job and failed. Furthermore, Garcia’s numbers last season did not merit his being given the starter job either. I think the team is making the right move (even if it took them a bit too long to adjust) by sending both young players down and giving the big team the best chance to win.

Kieboom’s luster as a prospect is now basically shot. I would not be surprised in the least to see him flounder in AAA and struggle to recover from the disappointment of being cut, which will further prevent him from recovering his prospect shine. Garcia was always over-promoted to me, and needs a year of seasoning in AAA.

Presumably the starting lineup will now feature Josh Harrison at 3B and Starlin Castro playing 2B (or perhaps the reverse). Getting Harrison in the lineup certainly improves the offense, likely at the expense of some 3B defense. How far the team has fallen from having Anthony Rendon providing Gold Glove defense and middle-of-the-order steady offense for half a decade.

Since Castro is struggling with some injuries, and since the team needs someone who can play SS as a backup … it was always a certainty that the team would carry a SS-capable player. I was hoping it would NOT be Garcia, because I want him to play every day … and now he will. I figured honestly the team would carry Perez, but Mercer is somewhat of a surprise. I’m guessing Castro may face a DL trip, which then would put Perez in as a starter, Mercer as the defensive replacement … and when everyone is healthy again Mercer may get the Axe.

To make room for the two new additions, Noll mercifully gets the DFA axe. This was the obvious move; Noll has been #1 on my “next player to get DFA’d to make room on the 40-man” roster for the better part of two years. I think he’s a nice story, making the team as such a long shot, and i’m surprised he made it so long on the roster. Odds are high that he’ll pass through waivers and accept the outright, but the odds of him returning to the majors seem slim.

The cascading effect of sending both Garcia and Kieboom to AAA, where they will be playing full time, has to be crushing to a slew of long-serving minor league vets in the org. Now there’s no room for the likes of Cole Freeman and Adrian Sanchez to play full time, to say nothing of several MLFA signings who seem like they’re a few days from getting cut (namely, Osvaldo Duarte, Ali Castillo, and Humberto Arteaga. That being said, the infield at AAA projects to have a very interesting set of prospects: KJ Harrison, Garcia, YaselAntuna and Kieboom. It’ll be fun watching AAA boxes in May.

Now lets talk about the Outfield Impact. Fan favorite Hernandez gets sent to AAA; some fans are already shocked that he gets cut based on his hitting this spring, but to me it’s pretty obvious. The team needs a spare outfielder who can actually play CF and that isn’t Hernandez. But it also may be that the injury to Castro forced the team’s hand to carry Mercer at the expense of Hernandez. Maybe we’ll see him back up soon to cover for a corner OF injury, or if (when) Ryan Zimmerman gets hurt.

Hernandez clearly has made Tomas expendable; he’s given his release. He just didn’t show much this spring (7-30 with no extra base hits) and the team has other options.

Gerardo Parra clearly isn’t ready so he will remain in roster limbo; it should be interesting to see what the team does with him once he’s ready to go, and who makes way. Does he replace Mercer like for like? Does he go to AAA and play for a bit? How does he fit into this team?

Speaking of outfielders in AAA, Hernandez will presumably man LF down there, as Tocci will man CF. That leaves just one OF position for a slew of org guys, and playing time will be tight for the likes of Rhett Wisemann and Nick Banks if Parra is on the roster. We’ll see. Maybe they’ll all just juggle DH duties.

Lastly, lets talk briefly about what we now know about the Pitching situation. We now seem to know at least how the “2nd lefty bullpen option” competition has shaken out: Clay lost and was demoted, McFarland lost and was released, and the team is waiting a day or two to make a 40-man corresponding move/DL assignment to add Luis Avilan. Makes sense and all seems logical.

The MLB bullpen now though still seems light: The big board shows only 6 relievers on the Washington roster right now, though Fedde and Voth seem like they’re both now being carried. That puts them at 8 … but we know that Harris and his blood clot will cause a short DL trip. So stay tuned for more machinations on the pitching. I’ll bet we’ll see at least one more RHP reliever addition (Javy Guerra?), but that’ll require another 40-man/60-day DL move. It is interesting that McGowin was sent down; to me this means he lost out to Guerra as a middle relief option.

Lastly, two starters remain in limbo: Armenteros and Romero. Romero the far more interesting case; where the F is he? Zero IP all spring, zero indication if he’s a starter or reliever. For a guy with such a track record/history it just leads to nothing but (bad) speculation. We’ll find out soon enough; they have to do something with him in the next few days.

So, lots of moves, lots of clarity already, with a bit more to come.

Post Publishing update: about 20 minutes after publishing, the team made the next logical bullpen move, adding Luis Avilan and DFA’ing Dakota Bacus. As noted above as a likely possibility but officially made today.

20 Responses to 'Spring Training 2021 Judgement Day Arrives'

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  1. The perfect photo for this article.

    For the last 3-4 months there was a lot of affordable 3rd base options just sitting there in free agency. I can only guess the Nats didn’t want to hurt Kieboom’s feelings by signing any of them.
    Hell, Gyorko is still out there and he’s better than Perez or Mercer. Right Sao?

    The good news on Noll is he spent 2 years on the 40 man, which means he’ll have a pension from the union in his future. He just never hit enough.

    Mark L

    28 Mar 21 at 10:42 am

  2. Worth noting that Mercer is guaranteed $1M for 2021 by dint of being promoted to the major league roster. Don’t think they’d assume that cost if they weren’t planning to carry him, although he could be cut later on if he doesn’t perform.

    Looks like an eight-man bullpen: Hand, Hudson, Suero, Finnegan, Rainey, Avilán, Fedde, Voth. Buckle up. Once Harris is ready, it might be decision time on Fedde vs. Voth, or someone like Finnegan could be optioned in a numbers game.

    There’s not much optional flexibility on the positional side of the roster. Turner, Soto, Robles, and Bell obviously aren’t getting sent down. Stevenson’s option status somehow still has not been reported. So I’m sure it’s not lost on Kieboom or García that the only pathways onto the 26-man roster for them now are for a starter (Castro, Harrison, Turner, or Schwarber) to be injured or for someone to so badly underperform that he is designated for assignment. For Mercer, at least, that would mean the Nats eat $1M. Not sure what the details of Pérez’s contract are.


    28 Mar 21 at 12:54 pm

  3. No sooner do I post than the team adds Avilan, DFAs’ Bacus. I’ll add this as a footnote to orig post.

    Todd Boss

    28 Mar 21 at 2:01 pm

  4. Todd Frazier just opted out of Pittsburgh deal; another veteran 3B available.

    Maybe the team likes Castro & Harrison on those two spots.

    Todd Boss

    28 Mar 21 at 2:10 pm

  5. Romero and Armenteros officially optioned as well. Looks like the roster is basically set.

    Todd Boss

    28 Mar 21 at 2:49 pm

  6. A reminder that per defensive stats, Castro is better at 3B than at 2B, and Harrison is better at 2B than at 3B. If they start Mercer at 3B, I’m going to scream, as Harrison and Castro are by far their strongest offensive combo at those positions. Of course they also really need Harrison to platoon with Schwarber . . .

    Speaking of which, I’m really disappointed that Tomas didn’t show anything, not even enough to be kept at AAA. I thought it was a long shot that he would be the team, but he was terrible.

    Bacus gave up a .167 BA against in the spring. Hope he doesn’t get picked up by another team. I’m really surprised that they DFA’d him, as they would seem to have two 60-day IL candidates in Romero and Harris, and perhaps another in Armenteros.

    Guerra gave up a BA of .360. He looks like he’s done. It would be a crime for him to be added to the roster ahead of McGowin/Harper/Fuentes. In fact, it’s really not the best bullpen to not have McGowin and Harper on the squad right now.

    The Voth/Fedde thing just totally smacks of the corner they backed themselves into with A.J. Cole, and eventually had to DFA him in April. One or the other should have been traded a year or two ago. At the very least, one or both need to go out and rake some leaves to develop a quick blister or two.


    28 Mar 21 at 3:53 pm

  7. The Nats’ season starts quickly and brutally: 29 of their first 32 games are against playoff teams from 2020 or the much-improved Mets. Six of those will be against the Braves. The only non-contending team the Nats will play in April is the D-Backs, in a three-game set. A 16-16 start through that stretch would be good and mark them as a contender. A 10-22 start would be a big early hole. Things get a little easier from mid-May through June, although there are four more games with the Braves. By June 3, they will have played the Braves 10 times.


    28 Mar 21 at 4:25 pm

  8. The NL East is easily the best division in the game. Zero teams tanking. compare this to, say, the NL West, where you have LAD and SD as top dogs then 3 teams that are basically not trying.

    Todd Boss

    29 Mar 21 at 11:03 am

  9. Time for a shoutout to old farts playing baseball.
    Ryan Zimmerman’s final stat for the spring was 1.738 OPS. Wow!

    Mark L

    29 Mar 21 at 4:35 pm

  10. FanGraphs has the Nats projected with 83 wins. I think that’s a fair number. I don’t think the Mets will win 92, though, or that they should be favored over the Braves (89). FG also has the Phils with 81 and Marlins with 73. The Marlins did achieve above their collective talent level last year, so perhaps that’s fair.

    It’s been a decade since the Nats have started a season projected to finish out of the playoffs, but I do think that’s where we are right now. Because of the Dodger/Padre and Brave/Met quality, the NL wild card bar looks pretty high — 89 wins. FWIW, the Nats would be their first team out, with more wins than any NL central squad.

    Are the Nats even 83-win good, though? I honestly don’t know. They played at a lowly 70-win pace in 2020, and that number was goosed by them winning seven of their last nine. They have Stras, Ross, and Zim back and have made a few medium-sized moves. Maybe 75 wins is their baseline now, which still would be a pretty low total for one of the higher payrolls in baseball. Make 83 the median and go eight the other way to give you an outside possibility of 91 if everything goes amazingly right. I could live with that projection, although it worries me that I feel that the 75-83 range is more likely than 83-91.


    30 Mar 21 at 1:06 pm

  11. This is a much better team than 83 wins, right now. Let’s see what happens.


    30 Mar 21 at 1:15 pm

  12. To me, the case for Hernandez over one of Perez or Mercer (who are essentially the exact same player, right-hand hitting utility infielders that can play shortstop in an emergency) is pretty clear.

    You have a five man bench. You absolutely need:

    Backup catcher (Avila)
    Backup infielder that can play short (either Perez or Mercer)
    Backup outfielder that can play center (Stevenson).

    Then you’ve committed the fourth spot to:

    Your 1B platoon guy that isn’t playing (Zim or Bell).

    So the question is: how do you get the most value out of that last spot? Picking that spot based on defensive ability really only protects you against a single game where 2 shortstops get hurt in the same game. That almost never happens — it’s like David Ayres territory, you don’t make plans around that. If it does, you can always make a roster move after the game to adjust.

    I think you are way more likely to get value out of a bat in that position that could pinch hit 2-3 times a week, and I’d feel a lot better seeing Hernandez (who also hits left handed) in that position than I would Perez or Mercer. I totally understand why one of those guys made the team. I can’t explain why they both did…


    30 Mar 21 at 1:49 pm

  13. NG, I generally agree with your logic. I think they kept both Mercer and Perez right now for a couple of reasons. The primary one is that they’re not convinced of Castro’s health, and they’re so not convinced about Keiboom’s readiness that they’d rather carry an extra utility infielder.

    The other reason is that Mercer (career 91 OPS+) has a significantly better MLB track record than Perez (Difo-esque 75 career OPS+), but Perez had a better spring than Mercer, perhaps leading to some concern that Mercer’s career might be running on fumes.

    A third reason is that even though Harrison isn’t really SS-capable, he is their ultimate utility guy, so they might need another infielder to start at 2B for him so he can platoon with Schwarber in LF or something. Personally, I’d probably take my chances with Schwarber vs. LHP than start Mercer or Perez, but we’ll see.

    Also, for as good as Harrison looked in 2020 and spring 2021, he was really bad as recently as 2019, so the extra infielder is a safety net for him as well.

    I do think Yadiel Hernandez will get some MLB time in 2021. Hopefully it’s not due to injury, but you never know.


    30 Mar 21 at 2:09 pm

  14. I also suspect keeping both Perez/Mercer is a hedge, and a short-lived one at that. Hernandez also has options, which always helps. I would guess he’s first bat called back up.

    Bacus and Noll both clear waivers and are outrighted. My new “First player to get outrighted if the team needs room” now becomes…. i mean, is is possibly Romero? i’ve got Fedde or Voth as 1/2 b/c of options issues… if either one of them comes in and blows up, they’re probably gone. After that … it gets dicey.

    Todd Boss

    30 Mar 21 at 3:16 pm

  15. That’s why I HATE it when they add guys like Adon and Antuna to the 40-man, guys who are well away from the majors who wouldn’t go in Rule 5 (particularly Adon). Now, if they are DFA’d, a team could add them to just their 40-man, not the 26-man, as would be required as a Rule 5 pick.

    I’m glad the Nats were able to retain Bacus. He’s shown enough the last couple of years to warrant keeping around. Noll got on the 40-man due to the combination of a “false spring” that was far out of line with his actual stats, plus an unusual confluence of need at the beginning of 2019. But he’s really a guy who has made the most of his talent just to get to AAA.

    Actually, the next guy to go off the 40-man likely would be the “loser” between Mercer and Perez, as neither has an option. Maybe Romero would be moved to the 60-day IL. Too bad there’s no “Mentally Unable to Perform” list.


    30 Mar 21 at 3:26 pm

  16. I think they had to add Antuna. Huge bonus guy, a “famous” name … someoen would have snapped him up. I mean, half the league isn’t really trying and now you have a 26th roster spot for just such a reason.

    Todd Boss

    30 Mar 21 at 3:47 pm

  17. Cluff played in twice as many spring A-games as Antuna did. That tells you all you need to know about how far from ready they think Antuna is.


    31 Mar 21 at 5:34 am

  18. There is traction to the Antuna bat hype. He can hit and the team knows that already. And when he bats, he is undaunted by the stage. His defense is another matter. Right now he may well be a DH in search of a position.

    Cluff, on the other hand, is in the opposite position. He is a defensively solid person who was being auditioned to take a much closer look at what he brings to the table in the upper minors.

    Just because we seldom saw Cavalli and Rutledge does not mean they are valued less than Todd Peterson. But Peterson got his looks because the Nationals, like Cluff, want to assess in him in particular whether there is more than meets the eye.

    I look at Perez as the person they signed Josh Harrison to be. Harrison is more than that. Mercer is an upgrade of Adrian Sanchez, who would make the roster when there was an injury and then go back down. So I’m not getting used to Mercer, in part because I think Parra will be taking his place in order to give the team both pinch hitting and outfield defense.

    Yadiel Hernandez, whom I have always regarded as a prospect despite the ageism that treats him as a non-entity on lists, will play in the majors. I would imagine a scenario in which, in a Twilight Zone kind of way, he will have a longer major league career than Carter Kieboom. He feels like trade bait to me, and feels like he was showcased as such for an AL team that can use him to DH. I wish he would be on the Nats, because I love his story. But if it can’t work, then I hope they get more for him than they did for Michael A Taylor.

    Players like Fedde and Voth can and will be (attempted to be) polished up to better trade value on the ML roster.


    31 Mar 21 at 7:09 am

  19. I agree with Dr. fore, time for some trades.

    This year, more than any others, will be a good time to pay close attention to AAA.

    Mark L

    31 Mar 21 at 7:49 am

  20. Todd Boss

    31 Mar 21 at 4:43 pm

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