There are five or six spots up for grabs on the Nationals roster this Spring. The sixth spot all depends on how you count the second base battle. My view on it is that Rendon earned the spot last season and has enough of a head start that Espinosa has to significantly out perform him during Spring Training and I doubt that happens. The five remaining are the fifth starters spot, two bullpen spots, and two bench spots.
The Contenders: Ross Detwiler, Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan, Ross Ohlendorf, and AJ Cole
My Prediction: Ross Detwiler
Ross Detwiler has the edge in this one. He has a longer track record than either Roark or Jordan and more recent success as a starter than Ohlendorf. When Detwiler was healthy during the 2012 season he pitched 164 1/3 innings with a 3.40 ERA. It is hard to get better than that from a fifth starter and if Detwiler can stay healthy it is his job. With that being all Detwiler has to do it is hard to imagine either Roark or Jordan pitching well enough in the Spring to unseat him. Ohlendorf, despite having a $1 million major league contract is a long shot to make this team as either a starter or a reliever, and finally AJ Cole is one of the Nationals top prospects and even if he shows he is ready to pitch at the majors he will be going back to the minors simply due to service time issues.
The Contenders: Fifth starter runner-ups, Xavier Cedeno, Josh Roenicke, Luis Ayala, Aaron Barrett, Ryan Mattheus, Christian Garcia, Clay Hensley, and Manny Delcarmen
My Prediction: Xavier Cedeno and Christian Garcia
Cedeno is something that the Nationals didn’t start the season with last season, a left-handed specialist. In AAA in 2013 Cedeno was great against left handed hitters and slightly below average against right handed hitters. He is someone that could be left in the ballgame to face a lesser right-handed hitter, but you wouldn’t want him going against Justin Upton. That role will probably go to Jerry Blevins anyway with Cedeno being used against the left handed hitters at the bottom of a teams order like Ike Davis or Jordan Schafer. Cedeno had a good enough season in 2013 between AAA and the majors and a good winter ball that he comes into Spring Training with enough of a head start to win the job, and being a left handed pitcher never hurt anyone.
Christian Garcia’s path to the bullpen is much the same as Detwiler’s to the rotation, stay healthy. Garcia has some of the best stuff of any pitcher on the Nationals and if he breaks Spring Training healthy he will be in the majors. His curve ball has been called emasculating and his fastball clocks in in the mid to upper 90’s. Garcia is an excellent pitcher that has never been able to stay healthy, but if he can do it he will be a real asset to the Nationals’ bullpen.
The Contenders: Danny Espinosa, Tyler Moore, Jamey Carroll, Mike Fontenot, Will Rhymes, Zach Walters, Steven Souza Jr., Matt Skole, and Eury Perez
My Prediction: Danny Espinosa and Steven Souza Jr.
When people think of Danny Espinosa they mainly think of their most recent visage of him. Danny Espinosa as a broken and beaten man trudging back to the minor league to try and find himself. He never did. Danny Espinosa struggled at both the majors and the minors last season. It was largely due to a wrist issue but that is also largely forgotten because in 2012 Danny Espinosa led the NL in strikeouts. He was also an average MLB hitter and above average for the position of second base which is also forgotten. What is ignored outright about Danny Espinosa is he is a fantastic defender, and when players with career .666 OPS’s are getting two year $6 million contracts to be a utility infielder there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that a player who averaged a .715 OPS when healthy can do it. Utility infielder isn’t an offensive position. Middle infielders aren’t regarded for their bats to begin with and someone that can’t make it as a starter at second or short due to offensive limitations isn’t expected to have a good bat. If Danny Espinosa decides this is a role befitting of someone of his stature then he is far and away the best option the Nationals have, and could be one of, if not the, best utility infielders in baseball.
Steven Souza Jr. is my one pick that is really a surprise. We’ve seen in recent years major league teams using prospects more and more as bench players. The Cardinals did it with both Allen Craig and Matt Adams before they earned starting roles and Xander Bogarts of the Red Sox spent some time on the bench in 2013. The Nationals have shown a willingness to copy smart teams before and the 200-300 at bats Souza would get at the major league level would help his development more than 400-500 at the AAA level. Souza has never played above AA, but he was excellent there last season with a batting line of .300/.396/.557. Souza is a toolsy outfielder that is starting to put it all together. Along with being able to play the outfield Souza has the bat to play first base and is a right handed hitter and could serve as the platoon player for Adam LaRoche if that is needed. As well as having the potential to be an excellent bat off the bench Souza stole 20 bases at AA last season and adds a dimension of speed that the Nats other right handed power hitting back up 1B/OF (Tyler Moore) doesn’t have. Souza is also regarded as an excellent defender in the corner outfield spots and decent enough to not embarrass himself in center. Heading into his age 25 season this is make or break for Steven Souza and it isn’t hard to imagine him having an impressive enough Spring to beat out Tyler Moore for the last spot on the Nats bench. He does do everything Moore does, but better, and brings a few extra dimensions as well.