JUPITER, Fla. — Six more decisions Wednesday morning moved the Washington Nationals near the end of their 25-man roster decisions.
Washington released reliever Vance Worley and optioned reliever Trevor Gott and starter A.J. Cole to Triple-A Syracuse, plus reassigned starter Jacob Turner, reliever Neal Cotts, and catcher Jhonatan Solano to minor-league camp.
Those moves leave three people for one spot. Jeremy Guthrie is the lone remaining bullpen option. The final bench choice appears to be down to infielder Wilmer Difo and outfielder Michael A. Taylor.
Keeping Guthrie would give the Nationals a long man in the bullpen. Cutting Worley means that Guthrie is the only remaining option for that spot, if the Nationals preferred to carry a pitcher with that particular focus. That seems unlikely since Washington has three days off in the first 13 days of the season. Nationals manager Dusty Baker said Tuesday that he would prefer not to carry 13 pitchers out of spring training because he feels it limits him on the bench. That would cut the choice to Taylor or Difo on the bench.
Baker has known parts there already: Stephen Drew is a left-handed hitting utility infielder. Chris Heisey is a power right-handed bat off the bench. Jose Lobaton is the backup catcher. Adam Lind is another left-handed option and backup first baseman. There is no natural outfielder in the group. Heisey or Lind can play the outfield when Jayson Werth needs a day off or if something goes wrong. But, neither are a center fielder.
Which makes Taylor’s path to the bench appear clear once again. His second consecutive solid, and at times spectacular, spring plus exceptional defense should be enough for him to claim the final spot. The question around him, of course, is whether he can translate the results to a major-league season. The Nationals still want him to cut down on strikeouts. All the tools are there. But, his efficiency at the plate needs to rise.
The roster needs to be set by the morning of the team’s first game, which is Monday for Washington.
Baker does have a few late-spring training issues among his regular players. Anthony Rendon remains out after fouling a ball off his calf Monday. Jayson Werth fouled a ball off his toe Tuesday, which kept him from playing nine innings Wednesday, which he was previously scheduled for, when the Nationals were in Jupiter to face the St. Louis Cardinals. But, Baker’s prime concern remains Daniel Murphy.
The MVP runner-up from last season has dealt with a truncated spring. Murphy received just six at-bats during the World Baseball Classic, which put his preparation behind. He has been sick this week, forcing him to scrap for at-bats on the minor-league side on Wednesday. The Nationals play in Fort Myers against the Boston Red Sox on Thursday to close spring training in Florida. Friday, they are in Washington to face the Red Sox again, this time at Nationals Park. Saturday, they finish spring training games at the Naval Academy, again playing the Red Sox.
Murphy has just 24 at-bats this spring against major-league pitching. For comparison, coming into Wednesday, Trea Turner has 64. Adam Eaton has 58. Bryce Harper has 53.
“How ready is Murphy?” Baker said. “He wasn’t ready when he left. He didn’t get ready while he was gone because he didn’t play, then he gets back and he gets sick. That was the one thing I was afraid of. No. 1, was there enough time to get ready? No. 2, if something happened to set him back even further. You don’t want to just overplay him then end up hurting something, then you start the season off never ready.”
The Nationals have slated Murphy to be the designated hitter Thursday. Baker said he has to talk to him Wednesday night to see how “strong he is” after Wednesday’s activity. Baker also hinted Tuesday that he may have to adjust his lineup at the start of the season to manage Murphy’s lack of preparation time. Asked if he would keep Murphy out of the Opening Day lineup, Baker laughed and said that Murphy would “kill me” if he did that.
Now that it is whittled down, Washington’s roster looks much the same as last season. Come Monday, there likely will be just four changes in the Opening Day lineup as compared to last season and two of those will involve players who were on the roster last year. Turner, who was not with the team for the opener last season, will be at shortstop. Adam Eaton will be in center field. Matt Wieters will catch. Stephen Strasburg, who made his final spring training start Wednesday, will be the pitcher because of the stress fracture in Max Scherzer’s right ring finger from last season. Scherzer has healed, providing Baker relief.
“I’m glad we got Max, phew,” Baker said. “That was big because we thought we were going to maybe lose Max for a couple weeks in April at a minimum. He worked hard to get back.”
There is still no resolution on the closer. At least not a public one. Baker was asked again Wednesday and again said he will let the media know, eventually. One of the Nationals’ relievers will be on the mound in the ninth in five days.