Nationals Arm Race

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

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Spring Training 2021 Judgement Day Arrives

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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.

Nats 40-man Options status

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Nearly every year we talk about the Options status of the 40-man, and what it means for spring training. And this year is no different; nearly every year the options availability (or lack of them) helps drive some edge-of-the-roster decisions and the team ends up keeping players at the expense of others, often times in stark contrast to fan-perceived value or merit of inclusion.

Here’s a run-through of the Options status of the current 40-man roster. I have uploaded my Options Analysis annual spreadsheet to the Big Board; it is one of the 2021 tabs. Direct link here. The online XLS has a ton more information than we show here: it has updated Service time, first added to 40-man, known years optioned and some notes.

I divide the Roster into 5 categories of players on the 40-man:
– Vets who can refuse demotion (5 or more years of service)
– Players with Options available but who are MLB Entrenched
– Players with Options Available, jeopardizing 25-man roster status
– Players with Options almost guaranteed to be used in 2021
– Players with No Options left (the main analysis of this post).

For completion, here’s a quick run-through of all the categories:

Category 1: Vets who can refuse demotion (5 or more years of service)

We have 13 such players for 2021: Scherzer, Corbin, Gomes, Strasburg, Harris, Castro, Hudson, Harrison, Schwarber, Lester, Zimmerman, Hand and Avila.

Interesting tidbits about this group:
– Castro, Zimmerman and Avila never once burned an option
– Schwarber just got his 5 years of service time last season.
– Zimmerman earned 10&5 rights in 2015, and Strasburg earned it last year.
– Of this group, only Hand actually burned three options. Then, he didn’t make the Miami team out of spring training in 2016 so they had to DFA him; San Diego claimed him and he began to flourish from there.


Category 2: Options Avail but are MLB entrenched

We have 7 such players for 2021: Turner, Soto, Robles, Suero, Rainey, Bell, and Finnegan.

You may quibble perhaps with Finnegan being called “entrenched” but for now, his 2020 season has him being a lock for the pen in my book.

Interesting tidbits about this group:
– Turner and Bell will reach 5 years of service time in 2021, which means they would be able to refuse an option.
– Neither Soto and Finnegan has ever been optioned.
– Turner’s 2015 nonsensical call-up ended up burning the team dearly; he achieved Super2 by just a few days and the Nats have been on the hook for millions more than they “needed” to spend.

Category 3: Options Available and not a lock for the 25-man roster.

I count 5 players in this category for 2021: Kieboom, Clay, Garcia, Fedde, and Harper.

Each of these players needs some discussion.

  • Kieboom, by all accounts, is being handed the 3B job. The team did not pursue a replacement, Castro wants to play 2B, and the job is his. I suppose it is still possible that the team finds a new 3B and sends him to AAA, where a lot of people think he needs to be. But for now, he’s in this category instead of the one above.
  • Clay signed a MLB contract with the team in the 2020 off-season, somewhat oddly in that he had zero MLB service time at that point and was a MLFA. I wonder if the team “beat out” another suitor by promising the 40-man slot. Either way, I do not favor Clay to make the team coming out of Spring Training.
  • Garcia could theoretically make the 25-man roster as our backup infielder … but i’d much rather see him in AAA playing full time. His slash line was not that impressive last year (but better than Kieboom’s … hence why some are wondering what the heck the team is doing). For now, i’d send him to AAA.
  • Fedde got a 4th option thanks to some timing issues … and i’ll bet the team uses it in 2021. Which means Fedde will be in AAA as a 28yr old and service time in four different MLB seasons. That’s got to be a bummer to him. And to make matters worse he may not be the first spot starter called upon, thanks to an option-less player we’re about to talk about.
  • Harper was solid in 2019, awful in 2020, and I think his options flexibility will mean he starts the year in AAA in lieu of one of the MLFA/NRIs we’ve signed this spring. But he should be back up eventually to provide injury relief cover.

Category 4: Players with options who are almost guaranteed to be optioned out of Spring Training.

I count 11 guys in this category: McGowin, Barrera, Noll, Braymer, Armenteros, Adon, Antuna, Fuentes, Hernandez, Romero and Bacus.

Lets take these guys by category:

  • Adon, Antuna and Fuentes: just added to the 40-man, not yet expected to contribute at the MLB level.
  • McGowin, Braymer, Armenteros and Romero: i’d want this to be 4/5ths or 4/6ths of my AAA rotation. I do not consider these players serious contenders to the 5th starter role, but I do think the team may be looking at the two lefties (Braymer and Romero) as relievers going forward. I’d rather see if they can cut it as starters and provide more value. Armenteros is a wildcard; he has certainly shown he can succeed as a starter in the minors and his release by Houston was somewhat surprising. I’m guessing he pitches excellently in AAA and could be a surprising call-up mid-seaons.
  • Noll: honestly i’m not sure why he’s still rostered at this point; instead of calling him up last year they started a 19yr old’s service time clock. Eventually they called him up and he got a grand total of three starts. He’s my “first guy off the 40-man if we need space” candidate right now.
  • Barrera: you have to have a backup catcher on the roster and he’s it.
  • Hernandez sits on the 40-man after a late-season call-up, but he seems to have no spot on this team. he’s 2nd behind Noll in “next guy to get DFA’d.”
  • Lastly, Bacus seems to be an afterthought reliever on the roster right now, and is not favored to beat out several MLFA NRIs for the 2021 roster.

Category 5: Players out of options.

We have 3 players out of options for 2021: Ross, Voth and Stevenson.

  • Joe Ross is the current leading 5th starter candidate.
  • Voth (along with Fedde) are the leading competitors for said 5th starter job, and the odds on circumstance to occur is this: Voth loses the 5th starter job but “looks good” in spring training, which leads the team to either carry him as the 8th reliever or to invent a soft tissue injury and stash him on the DL for a few weeks. If Voth does NOT look good in spring training, he’s a DFA candidate come 4/1/21.
  • Stevenson has proven his worth as a plus defender, 4th outfielder type and his 2020 allowed the team to move on (finally?) from Michael A. Taylor this off-season. He’s out of options, but it doesn’t matter b/c he’s the bench OF.

Post Publishing Update 3/23/21: an Arbiter has just ruled that Erick Fedde does NOT have a 4th option, meaning that he’s now out of options and would have to be exposed to waivers if he doesn’t make the 2021 opening day roster.