Three Roster Battles for the Washington Nationals

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 29: Carter Kieboom #8 of the Washington Nationals looks on before playing against the St. Louis Cardinals at Nationals Park on April 29, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 29: Carter Kieboom #8 of the Washington Nationals looks on before playing against the St. Louis Cardinals at Nationals Park on April 29, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /

The three biggest roster battles to watch during Spring Training for the Washington Nationals

The Washington Nationals have arrived in West Palm Beach, Florida with pitchers and catchers reporting for work on February 12th.  Much of the roster appears set as the team is loaded with veterans. However, there are several camp battles that will have a significant impact on the opening day roster and the overall depth of the organization.  Here are three key battles that are worth watching leading up to Opening Day.

Kieboom vs. Difo

After the departure of Anthony Rendon during free agency, the Nationals have a lot of questions regarding their infield configuration.

Asdrubal Cabrera, Starlin Castro and Howie Kendrick provide veteran leadership and depth at both second- and third- base, but it is the Nationals top prospect, Carter Kieboom, who will be thrust into the spotlight during spring training.  Davey Martinez and his staff have a big decision to make regarding Kieboom’s ability to be a regular contributor at third base.

Kieboom has played only 10 professional games at third base and his brief stint with the Nationals in 2019 demonstrated that he wasn’t ready for big league baseball at that time. Kieboom hit just .128 with 2 homeruns in 38 at-bats last season.  He also made 4 errors in 40 chances while playing shortstop.

But Kieboom did produce in the minor leagues, hitting .303 with 16 homers and 79 RBI with AAA Fresno last season.

Kieboom’s biggest competition for a roster spot will likely be Wilmer Difo who has spent time on the Nationals roster in each of the last five seasons.  Difo avoided arbitration with the Nationals in the offseason, agreeing to a one year, $1 million contract.  Last year, Difo hit .252 with 2 long balls in 43 games with Washington and .300 with 4 homers in 61 games with AAA Fresno.

Entering his age 22 season, there is no question that Kieboom boasts the most upside of the two, but Difo is out of minor league options which could work to his advantage.

If Kieboom doesn’t have a hot start to the spring, it is likely that the Nationals will keep Difo on the big league club for opening day.  This would mean that Kieboom would begin the season in the minor leagues and gain additional defensive experience and regular at-bats.

However, the Nationals are in need of significant offensive production after the loss of Rendon.  If Kieboom produces (especially on offense), their defensive depth and veteran-heavy roster could allow them to keep Kieboom with the big league club and potentially release Difo.

This battle will come down the difference between Carter Kieboom’s readiness to play big league baseball and the Nationals interest in retaining Wilmer Difo.

Ross vs. Voth

The battle to determine the Nationals fifth starter has a bit more flexibility than Kieboom vs. Difo.

Erick Fedde will be mentioned as a candidate for the fifth starter role, but he holds a rare 4th minor league option.  Realistically, his extra option makes it extremely unlikely that he will make the opening day roster.

Both Joe Ross and Austin Voth however, are out of minor league options.  This means whichever pitcher is not initially declared a starter is almost assured (barring a trade) to start the season in the bullpen.

At this point, the matchup is a coin flip.

Voth had better overall big league production last year with a 3.30 ERA over 9 appearances (8 starts).  But his minor league production was more erratic, as his ERA climbed to 4.40 in 12 starts with AAA Fresno.

Ross had plenty of poor outings in 2019, as evidenced by his 5.48 ERA, but he also had some extremely productive stretches.  In August, Joe Ross went 3-0 with a 1.05 ERA through 5 starts. His biggest struggles came when he pitched out of the bullpen.  Hitters batted a ridiculous .360 vs. Ross as a reliever but a respectable .256 when he served as a starter.

Joe Ross was also called upon to pitch game 5 of the World Series when ace Max Scherzer was a late scratch, and kept the Nationals in it for much of the game.

Realistically, each pitcher will get opportunities to start throughout the regular season based on matchups,  scheduling, injuries and production. The biggest decision Davey Martinez has to make before opening day is which role (starting or relieving) Ross and Voth are most likely to succeed in.

Bullpen Battle

You may have heard that the 2019 Washington Nationals bullpen wasn’t great. By all accounts, the 2020 bullpen should be better, but how much better is yet to be seen.

Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson and Will Harris highlight the back end bullpen options. Tanner Rainey and Roenis Elias are locks based on their 2019 production. Hunter Strickland is highly likely to make the opening day roster based on his experience and the $1.6 million that he is guaranteed.  And, whoever does not win the 5th starter battle between Ross and Voth will serve as long relieving option.

Assuming that the Nationals keep eight relievers this means the final spot will likely be between Wander Suero, Ryne Harper and Aaron Barrett.  Suero holds one minor league option, Barrett two and Harper three.

Aaron Barrett is a fan favorite since returning to the major leagues after four grueling seasons. He was excellent in 2019, saving 31 games with a 2.75 ERA  in 50 total appearances for AA affiliate Harrisburg. He struggled in his minimal opportunities with the Nationals at the end of the regular season, but a strong spring could propel him onto the Nationals 26 man roster for opening day.

Wander Suero is the most logical choice for the final bullpen spot, as he owns only one minor league option and appeared in 78 games for the World Champions last season. While he was a staunch reliever in 2019, he wasn’t overly dominant.  Suero had a season ERA of 4.54 and had a BB/9 rate of 3.3. But that doesn’t tell the entire story.   Right handed hitters batted just .207 against him all season and as a power pitcher he had a SO/9 rate of over 10.  There is certainly hope that the ERA number can decrease, enabling Davey Martinez to use him against heavy right handed hitting lineups.

Ryne Harper was acquired late in the offseason from the Twins and faces the most obstacles in his pursuit to make the 26 man roster.  Harper owns three minor league options and doesn’t have traditionally overpowering stuff in the way that Barrett and Suero do. He reached the major league for the first time last season and pitched well through 54.1 innings with Minnesota.  He had a 3.81 ERA ball with 8.3 K/9.  Harper has terrific control and relies on his breaking ball more than 60% of the time.  Harper could offer a unique style to the Nationals bullpen which could keep hitters off balance after facing power starters like Max Scherzer.