Real Spring Training Battles Heating Up

Posted by Dave Nichols | Thursday, March 17, 2011 | , , | 0 comments »

The Washington Nationals have made another round of roster cuts, according to multiple reports trickling out of Viera.  News today that RHRP Cole Kimball, 1B Chris Marrero and CF Corey Brown were all sent over to the minor league side should not come as a shock to anyone that follows this team.

Kimball, 25, a hard-throwing -- but wild -- reliever was exciting to watch in camp, and he struck out three more yesterday in his two innings of work against Houston.  But he also walked two and gave up a hit. 

He's been solid this spring, allowing just one earned run and five hits in eight innings, walking three and striking out eight.  Hard to think what else he could have done to make the team, but at this point the Nats just have too many pitchers in the bullpen out of options, and a building team can't be in the business of throwing away resources.

Kimball will make his MLB debut this year, just a little later than he would have liked.

The Marrero and Brown moves are completely expected.  Both have serious issues to work on in the minors this year to earn a promotion.  Marrero needs to prove himself defensively and continue to show progress with the bat on his way up the ladder, and Brown needs to show discipline at the plate to go along with his intriguing power/speed combination.

But now we're getting down to the nitty-gritty.

There are several questions that still need to be answered before opening day:
1) Who starts in center field?
2) Who will be the closer?
3)  Who will be the backup catcher?
4)  What is the backup plan if Michael Morse is exposed as an every day player in left?
By my count there are 41 players left (hmm, 38 accoring to Goessling) in big league camp, pending any other cuts that become public today.  Some we can be pretty comfortable crossing off the list as potentials for the final roster, like catchers Derek Norris and Jhonathon Solano, and Chien-Ming Wang, who will probably start the season on the disabled list.

(ed.  Norris was re-assigned to double-A Harrisburg per team press release today.)

What of the others?

With Morse now entrenched in left field (for the time being), center field becomes a very interesting battle.  The organization wants Nyjer Morgan to win the job.  He's their vision of a prototypical leadoff man (at least against righties, where his OBP and SB% are both miles ahead of his performance against LHPs). 

But his spring at the plate has been anything but convincing (.222/.333/.333, 5 SB/2 CS) and he still continues to have troubles playing his position, whether it's misjudging fly balls, throwing to the wrong base or missing the cut-off man.

Neither Roger Bernadina or Rick Ankiel have seized the opportunity either, leaving the battle for center one of attrition, unfortunately.  Several team officials have gone out of their way to praise Ankiel, and by all accounts he probably has a job in coaching whenever he decides he doesn't want to play anymore.

So let's assume Morgan "wins" the job and Ankiel is the backup in CF and LF, spelling Morse against righties on occasion.  The leaves Bernadina, who played all year last year, fighting it out with Laynce Nix as the fifth outfielder.

As for the closer's role?  Who knows?  The bullpen is a jumble right now with several players out of options and others, such as Tyler Clippard, fighting their way through a less-than-stellar spring.

Drew Storen was groomed for the job, and is one of the most promoted players by the Nats P.R. machine.  It would be a travesty if he falls victim to having all his options remaining.  The Nats added veteran Todd Coffey to the mix, which will include Sean Burnett and Doug Slaten as well.

Henry Rodriguez, the flame-throwing reliever acquired in the Josh Willingham deal, is out of options.  So regardless of his late arrival due to visa problems and issues throwing strikes, he'll have to stay on the roster -- there's no way he makes it through waivers.

Elvin Ramirez and Brian Broderick are both Rule 5 selections that have to remain on the active roster or be returned to their original team unless a trade can be worked out.  Ramirez has a big arm but hasn't made much noise in spring training, but Broderick is getting plenty of opportunity to show off that grounder inducing sinker of his (8.2 IP, 1ER, 4 H, 1 BB, 4 K, 3.0 GO/FO).

Craig Stammen and Collin Balester, who both were effective in their roles last season, could very well end up the victims of the options game.

Three-fifths of the rotation is set in stone, with Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis and Jordan Zimmerman all locked into their roles, and John Lannan looks pretty secure in the fourth spot.  That leaves Tom Gorzelanny, Chad Gaudin and Ross Detwiler battling for the fifth spot. 

As I wrote yesterday, Detwiler remains the most intriguing (and only one with real upside) candidate, but Gorzelanny came over in a trade for prospects and Gaudin had thrown very well this spring, perhaps now competing with Broderick as the "long man" in the pen Stammen occupied much of last season.

It's two weeks before Opening Day.  A lot can still happen.  An injury could pop up, GM Mike Rizzo might make a trade, anything really.  But still, an awful lot of question marks yet for a team many think could be the surprise of the National League East.