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Garcia Likely To AAA, Strange-Gordon, Cavalli May Stick Around

With less than two weeks remaining until the MLB regular season begins, it’s becoming clearer what and who we can expect to see on Opening Day. By the looks of it, the roster won’t look like we expected it would – and Dee Strange-Gordon and Cade Cavalli could be among the unplanned inclusions.

An Infield Without Luis Garcia

One unexpected change is that middle infielder Luis Garcia will likely start the season in Triple-A Rochester. As we recently discussed, manager Dave Martinez had expressed concern with Garcia’s consistency in the field. Defense was supposed to be his calling card, but there have been routine plays – in games, and presumably also in practice – that Garcia hasn’t made at the major league level.

Still, this is a somewhat curious decision for multiple reasons. When players are sent back down to the minor leagues, it’s typically because they aren’t hitting well enough. Although Garcia hasn’t made a significant impact at the plate, he’s batting .254 in 110 big league games and compiled nearly a 1.000 OPS in Rochester last season.

More importantly, this is a rebuilding season for the Nationals anyway. If they were competing for a playoff spot, removing Garcia from a substantial role would make sense. But if Washington is expected to win somewhere in the neighborhood of 65-70 games regardless, why not see what they have in one of their top young assets?

If Garcia indeed starts the year in Rochester and with Carter Kieboom on the Injured List, the presumptive starting infield is Josh Bell (first base), Cesar Hernandez (second), Maikel Franco (third) and Alcides Escobar (shortstop) with Ehire Adrianza and likely two more guys – Strange-Gordon and Lucius Fox seem like the frontrunners – off the bench.

Batting Order is Becoming Clear

As all teams do, the Nationals have trotted out numerous different lineups so far this spring. That’s partially due to the fact that no one plays every day during Spring Training, and also as a way to experiment with batters hitting in different sequences.

With that said, we’re beginning to see some consistency amongst the likely starting nine. I have formulated a spreadsheet that includes hitters who have played in each individual Spring Training game, as well as the starting lineups.

In summary, it’s becoming clear that the intent is for Cesar Hernandez to be the leadoff hitter, followed by a middle grouping of Juan Soto, Nelson Cruz, Josh Bell, Keibert Ruiz and Lane Thomas in that order, and Victor Robles batting ninth.

The only real question is where the starters on the left side of the infield – Alcides Escobar and Maikel Franco – hit. Recent games suggest that Soto will bat second, and that Escobar is effectively the backup No. 1 and 2 hitter, and will otherwise bat lower in the lineup. Game No. 5 of the spring, in which Escobar hit seventh behind Thomas and Franco batted eighth, seems like the most likely model.

Looking further down the depth chart, it seems like Strange-Gordon is the preferred leadoff hitter when he plays and Hernandez doesn’t. If “DSG” makes the roster – which is somewhat of an uphill battle, despite his major league experience, because he isn’t on the 40-man roster yet – he’ll likely be Hernandez’s backup at second base, and he’s also played a lot of left field this spring.

Anyone else would likely bat eighth or ninth when they play, with the possible exception of Yadiel Hernandez – although he’ll have significant competition to make the Opening Day roster, particularly with the emergency of DSG.

Infielder/outfielder Yasel Antuna and outfielder Donovan Casey were recently optioned to the minor leagues, and infielders Andrew Young and Jackson Cluff were Spring Training invitees from outside the 40-man roster who have been reassigned to minor league camp. Infielder Darren Baker and outfielders Nick Banks, Matt Lipka and Cody Wilson have also each appeared in a game, despite not being official Spring Training invitees.

Building Up the Pitchers

It’s generally not the greatest idea to draw many conclusions from pitching performance in March games. However, some starters have been pitching well lately. Excluding the second inning of Cavalli’s Friday outing, the starting pitchers allowed only two earned runs in 16 1/3 innings this week.

We’re beginning to see who’s truly competing to crack the starting staff. Patrick Corbin, Josiah Gray and Erick Fedde appear firmly entrenched, Anibal Sanchez and Cade Cavalli have been throwing on the same day as each other for multiple innings, and Josh Rogers has also been getting significant work. Conversely, Paolo Espino and fellow veteran Aaron Sanchez have been used out of the bullpen in a single-inning capacity.

Most importantly, the rotation has been getting “stretched out” recently. Since Wednesday, all starters (namely Corbin, Gray, Cavalli and Fedde) have thrown between 55-60 pitches during their turn through the rotation. Sanchez and Rogers have most recently thrown in side session/minor league games, and it hasn’t been disclosed how many pitches they threw, but it’s likely in the same range.

That means six pitchers are competing for five spots. Yes, that includes Cavalli. After a somewhat mixed performance on Friday, Martinez stated that Cavalli “fits right in” and will get an opportunity to pitch on his next scheduled day (presumably Wednesday) in an MLB game – not an intrasquad or minor league game. If he does in fact pitch on Wednesday, it would be against the Cardinals – the same team he just faced.

To that end, he faced a tough lineup. St. Louis sent out virtually all of its starters, including stars like Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. Cavalli gave up three runs in three innings (plus one batter who reached base in the fourth). However, he retired the top of the Cardinals lineup in order twice, including striking out Goldschmidt both times.

This could all be a bluff. Maybe Martinez knows he’ll need Cavalli later this season and wants to get him exposure to major league hitting before then. He’s held up pretty well, though – particularly in his scoreless three-inning appearance last weekend. He still hasn’t walked a batter, either.

Upcoming Schedule

Sunday is an off day for the Nationals. Then, they’ll play four games from Monday through Thursday to close out March. Corbin has been announced as Monday’s starter, which will begin at 1:05 p.m. and can be seen on MASN. Tuesday and Wednesday’s games will also start at 1:05 p.m. against the Astros and Cardinals respectively, and Thursday’s action against the Mets will begin at 6:10. Gray, Cavalli and Fedde will likely follow Corbin to start the latter three games, although Sanchez could draw the start on Wednesday with Cavalli out of the bullpen.

In theory, the Nationals could simply turn to this group of four pitchers two more times before Opening Day. Doing so would keep them on their “every fifth day” schedule.

One Last Thing…

The Nationals recently signed right-handed reliever Tyler Clippard to a minor league contract. Clippard pitched to a 2.68 ERA with the Nats from 2008-14 and played a major role in the back of the bullpen during Washington’s early years of playoff contention. Although his first few years away from D.C. fell far short of his All-Star campaigns, he’s recorded a sub-3.00 ERA combined across the last three seasons. At worst, the 37-year-old righty will provide a quality veteran arm during camp. At best, he could become a late-inning pitcher during the season.

Clippard will likely make his debut within the next few games. I’ll have updates on him and the rest of the team when the time comes.


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Friday, 30 September 2022

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