Projecting the Washington Nationals Opening Day Roster

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Less than a week from Opening Day, the Washington Nationals are putting the final touches on their 25-man roster. In recent days, we have seen Washington release veteran Kevin Frandsen and re-assign Tony Gwynn Jr., Rafael Martin, and Ian Stewart to minor league camp, giving the Nationals approximately 30 players in camp for the final 25 available. Mere hours before Washington flies north from spring training, here is my projection for the 25-man roster next Monday against the New York Mets.

Starting Rotation

1) Max Scherzer
2) Stephen Strasburg
3) Jordan Zimmermann
4) Gio Gonzalez
5) Doug Fister

No surprises here, as the Nationals are poised to have one of the best starting rotations in the past decade.   No real news here, let’s move to the bullpen.

Bullpen

6) Drew Storen RHP
7) Blake Treinen RHP
8) Craig Stammen RHP
9) Aaron Barrett RHP
10) Matt Thornton LHP
11) Xavier Cedeno LHP
12) Tanner Roark RHP

Expected set-up man and free agent pickup Casey Janssen will begin the season on the disabled list, a recurring theme of this spring, though he should return in April. This should open an opportunity for Aaron Barrett and Blake Treinen to pitch meaningful innings the first few weeks of the season. Roark has struggled this spring, and he has minor league options remaining, but his experience keeps him in Washington.

The Blevins trade earlier this week opened a spot in the bullpen for the 2nd lefty to compliment Matt Thornton. Xavier Cedeno, Matt Grace, and Rich Hill are competing for this one spot, and I believe Grace goes to AAA due to having minor league options. This leaves the competition down to Cedeno or Hill, and I expect the familiarity of Cedeno to allow him to seize this position.

Opening Day Lineup

13) Michael Taylor CF
14) Yunel Escobar 3B
15) Ryan Zimmerman 1B
16) Bryce Harper RF
17) Ian Desmond SS
18) Wilson Ramos Catcher
19) Tyler Moore LF
20) Dan Uggla 2B

Currently it is trending toward Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, and Jayson Werth beginning the season on the Disabled List, though it is expected Rendon and Werth should return in April. These injuries will give the Opening Day lineup a unique look, and certainly we could see Danny Espinosa start on Monday, but Uggla’s hot spring gets him the start.

Bench

21) Jose Lobaton Catcher
22) Matt den Dekker OF
23) Danny Espinosa 2B/SS/3B
24) Reed Johnson OF
25) Mike Carp 1B/LF

Nate McLouth, remember him, should begin the year on the DL, leaving the competition for the reserve outfield positions available. Den Dekker was acquired in a trade this week and has options remaining, but his versatility and left-handed bat should give him one spot. Reed Johnson, signed earlier this week, has experience at all three outfield positions and has strong numbers against left-handed pitching, giving this veteran a place on this roster.

Looking toward the infield, Jose Lobaton is locked into the backup catcher position for the second consecutive season. Danny Espinosa has struggled this spring in his transition to hitting exclusively right-handed, but his power and defensive versatility makes him a vital part of the Nationals bench.

The final spot on the bench and the team appears to be a 2-man competition between left-handed hitters Mike Carp and Clint Robinson. Carp has the edge in position versatility, as he can play left field in addition to first base, and has had past success at the major league level. On the other hand, Carp has struggled this spring, while Robinson has swung a hot bat in Viera, hitting .333 with 2 home runs. Although a strong argument can be made for Robinson, I expect the more experienced Carp to grab the final place on the roster.

The Washington Nationals Trade Jerry Blevins to the New York Mets

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Monday afternoon the Washington Nationals traded left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins to their rival, the New York Mets, for outfielder Matt den Dekker. A rare in-division trade, both teams traded from areas of organizational depth in an attempt to fill weaknesses attributable to recent injuries.

Acquired last winter from Oakland, the 31-year-old Jerry Blevins had a rather unusual season for Washington in 2014, struggling with a 4.87 ERA and 1.238 WHIP over 57.1 innings pitched. However, a closer look at his numbers shows a 10.4 K/9 rate, a 2.77 FIP, a lowly 0.5 HR/9 rate, along with .160/.202/.217 batting line against lefties. Unfortunately Blevins struggled mightily against righties with a .821 OPS allowed last season and pitched poorly this spring, allowing 9 hits and 4 home runs in 8 innings. Out of minor league options and scheduled to earn $2.4 million in 2015, the Nationals preferred to trade Blevins and rely on other left-handed relief options on the 40-man roster such as Xavier Cedeno, Matt Grace and Felipe Rivero.

In return for Blevins, the Nationals receive 27-year-old OF Matt den Dekker, a former Florida Gator who was drafted in the 5th round of the 2010 draft. As a draft prospect, den Dekker projected as an above-average to plus defensive centerfielder with some left-handed pop, but questions about his ability to hit professional pitching and his ultimate ceiling as a hitter. Since being drafted den Dekker has struggled with injuries, which has sapped some of his speed and athleticism, making him more of an average defender in center field and slightly above-average in the corners. That said, when he has been healthy den Dekker has more than outperformed expectations at the plate, hitting a career .289/.352/.472 with 197 extra base hits in 466 minor league games.

Due to injuries with the Mets and his strong minor league numbers, den Dekker has received major league playing time the past two seasons, hitting a career .238/.325/.322 with 1 home run and 11 stolen bases over 80 games and 210 at-bats. Den Dekker has a solid skillset for a National League bench player, as he has above-average speed, the ability to play all three outfield positions at an average or slightly better level, and possesses a left-handed bat with some pull power. A long-time personal favorite of mine, den Dekker stands a strong chance to be a valuable 5th outfielder/24th man on the bench for the Nationals for the next few seasons.

From the Nationals perspective, the team has had an unusual amount of injuries this winter to their outfielders, having seen Denard Span re-injure himself and Jayson Werth and Nate McLouth slow to recover from offseason surgeries.  Amidst concerns on the availability of Werth and McLouth for Opening Day, Washington needed to acquire another outfielder. Furthermore, Washington has seen Blevins struggle against righties since coming to D.C., and with a sudden plethora of left-handed relief options, the Nationals dealt from this depth to fill an obvious offensive need.

Blevins is a solid left-handed reliever and the Nationals will miss his ability to match up against quality left-handed hitters this season. That said general manager Mike Rizzo traded 1-year of a superfluous piece to obtain 6-years of a potentially versatile reserve outfielder well-suited for a role as a National League bench player. In addition, den Dekker has two minor league options remaining, meaning he can be liberally sent to the minor leagues if the team needs roster flexibility this season. This trade is unlikely to make a major impact in the win-loss column but I do think the Nationals received a more valuable overall asset, particularly for their organization needs, than they parted with going from Blevins to den Dekker.

NatsGM Overall Grade ->     B- / C+

Other Roster Notes:

Early Monday morning the Washington Nationals announced that they had traded catcher Sandy Leon to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for cash considerations. Leon, who was out of minor league options, was facing a difficult roster crunch with Wilson Ramos and Jose Lobaton ahead of him on the depth chart, along with the presence of Dan Butler, an acquisition earlier this offseason.

Essentially, this decision came down to Butler having minor league options and Leon lacking them,  and the Nationals did not want to risk exposing Leon to waivers without receiving something in return. Certainly I would rather see the team obtain a player rather than cash, but the Nationals did reasonably well to get anything for Leon, who was likely to be cut in the next few days.

Also on Monday Washington signed OF Reed Johnson to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Johnson spent this spring with Miami, attempting to make their team as a reserve outfielder, but the Marlins released him early Monday morning. He was out of work less than the time it takes to drive across the Bay Bridge on Memorial Day, signing with Washington in the afternoon.

Johnson has struggled the past two seasons, but the 38-year-old has been successful throughout his career hitting lefties, with a career .818 OPS. Johnson is unlikely to make the Opening Day roster, but with the reputation as an excellent clubhouse presence and the number of injuries to Nationals’ outfielders, Johnson could see time in Washington this season.

THE NatsGM Show Episode #30 – A Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles Season Preview

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To commemorate and celebrate Episode #30, this show features five separate interviews from five major celebrities to preview the 2015 Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles.

I have assembled Matt from MattsBats.com, James O’Hara from Citizens of NatsTown, and Joe Drugan from The Nats Blog to discuss everything pertaining to the 2015 Nationals.

Similarly I invited SiriusXM’s Mike Ferrin and Baseball Prospectus’s Tucker Blair to share their thoughts on Baltimore’s chances to repeat as AL East champions.

This is a lengthy episode so If you wish to skip to specific interviews within the Podcast, you can find Matt at the 1 minute mark, Joe @ 13:48, James @ 39:15, Mike @ 1hr and 16 minutes, and Tucker @ 1hr and 47 minutes.

Thanks to each for appearing, or re-appearing, on the show.  In addition, I want to thank our producer, Josh Owens, for his hard-work in putting this show together.