ATLANTA — As soon as the clock hit midnight, major league teams were be able to expand their rosters and infuse their ballclubs with some of their top minor league talent. In the Nationals’ case, it won’t be happening just that quickly. Tom Milone will join the team by Saturday and start that night against the New York Mets. Brad Peacock will be arriving around the same time and Stephen Strasburg will rejoin the Nationals active roster on Tuesday.
After that, most of the Nationals callups aren’t expected until after the Triple-A season ends on Sept. 5. When they get here, you can expect to see the faces that go with names like Atahualpa Severino, Roger Bernadina, Yunesky Maya and Steve Lombardozzi.
The Nationals will have to clear some space on their 40-man roster to bring them all up. While Severino is on the team’s 40-man, along with Bernadina and Maya. Lombardozzi, Peacock and Milone are not. The Nationals can easily clear two spots by moving Adam LaRoche and Cole Kimball to the 60-day disabled list, but they’ll also have to clear a spot for Strasburg (who will be coming off the 60-day disabled list). Basically that means that someone is going to be getting designated for assignment and taken off the 40-man shortly. There are several candidates (Garret Mock, for one) but the Nationals will have to make some decisions if they intend to fill all of these players on their roster, albeit an expanded one.
But once that’s out of the way, they’ll have a month to integrate this young talent and prepare a lot of them for what could be their immediate future. On a lot of teams, September call-ups are reinforcements for a playoff run. The Nationals will get a glimpse at that type of thing when they travel to Philadelphia in a few weeks and when they welcome the Braves back to Nationals park on the season’s final weekend.
But for Washington, it’s a month to continue the type of change in culture that Washington has worked hard to alter this season — and make this team different from that of the organization’s past.
“It’s a big month,” said veteran infielder Alex Cora. “These kids have to come in and learn the right way to be a winner. I think guys like (Livan Hernandez), Rick (Ankiel), Jayson (Werth), myself, we’ve been around. We’ve been on winning teams. The same way as our roles are going to be diminished, in my situation, I’ve still got to come in, show up early, take my ground balls like I’ve been doing this whole time, hit early, and grab those kids and say ‘This is how we do it.’
“If we do that over the course of the whole month and don’t focus on the struggles on the field — and there’s going to be some adjustments — but if we focus on the process and try to teach these kids… I think it’s just going to help them out.”
The Nationals have done this dance before — like last year when Danny Espinosa emerged, hit two home runs in his Nationals Park debut and proved he could handle second base in the big leagues, or the year before when Ian Desmond did something similar — this year the focus will be more on pitching than position players. All eyes will be on Milone and Peacock as potential 2012 rotation candidates, as well as Lombardozzi — a Maryland native — and how he fits in in the infield. Toss in the continued evaluation of Ross Detwiler, Yunesky Maya and Severino (who has been up several times but never once appeared in a major league game), and, of course, Strasburg’s surgically repaired right elbow.
As Cora said, it’s an important month, but more than for just the prospects. Last spring training, Espinosa talked about how when he arrived in the Nats clubhouse last fall, he — and plenty of others — got the sense that there was nothing to play for. It was, for lack of a better term, a miserable environment. He admits things are different this year.
“I don’t feel that way at all,” he said. “There’s still something to play for. I don’t want to come in last place. If we come in third place, we made an improvement… I’d never just roll over and just let things run away. I’ve got a month to play. That’s a lot of time for everyone to finish their season strong as individuals and as a team. To me, if you give up, that’s a selfish thing.
“This team actually has a goal. We’re not going to give up. A lot of these guys are going to be back next year, I think. Why are we going to give up? Why don’t we just continue to push ourselves because we’re going to be back to play together again next year, a lot of us. Why make it worse? Why give up? There’s no reason to give up.”
Espinosa has played in every game this season for the Nationals, his first full year in the major leagues, so he’s coming at this fall from a different perspective than someone like Werth who has been through this before but hasn’t been a part of a non-contending September in years. Still, in order for that not to continue to be the norm for the Nationals, he recognizes how pivotal this time is for his team.
“I think it’s just important for us that we continue to play the game the right way and continue to do the little things that keep you in and eventually lead to winning ballgames,” Werth said last weekend in Cincinnati. “It’s very important with these young guys coming up for them to learn the game the right way. It’s almost more important at this point that winning ballgames. Of course we want to win. That’s your goal every day. You come out here and you want to win, but you’ve got to learn the right way. If you don’t learn the right way, when you get here, it’s just going to make it harder to backtrack and get rid of bad habits. That falls on the veteran guys around here.
“Playing in the minor leagues and being a prospect is a lot different from winning the world series. There’s a lot of things you’ve got to learn along the way. You just don’t wake up in the morning and come to the field and win a world series. A lot of things have to happen, almost in order, so hopefully the rest of the way here we can play good ball and play the game the right way and hopefully things will line up and we’ll win along with it.
“That’s part of winning, I think. You play the game the right way, you play hard, you do the little things, you win baseball games. That should be our mantra almost for the month of September, especially when we get some of these kids up here. We’re young. Everybody knows that. We’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of young talent. The future’s bright for this team. This organization’s got a lot of talent but it’s got to be cultivated. It’s got to be cultivated the right way.”