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Once Again, It’s Time For A Nationals Youth Movement

In the past few days, two contractual developments have converged for the Washington Nationals, and both point toward the Nationals getting younger, something fans have been pleading for on social media.

First, infielder Luis Garcia exceeded the required time in the minor leagues for the Nationals to gain a season of club control (if you don’t understand what that means or how they got it, I’ll explain it in a moment).

Then following Saturday’s doubleheader, the Nationals designated starting pitcher Aaron Sanchez for assignment. This was partially done due to his poor performance (an 8.33 ERA through seven starts), but the need for a sixth starter later this week prior to Sanchez’s spot in the rotation coming up again also made it tougher to justify holding onto him.

There’s some further roster maneuvering that needs to happen in the coming days – although DFAing Sanchez was an important step. Allow me to explain the options the Nationals have to fill these two spots...

Making Space For Luis Garcia

I’ve probably discussed Garcia enough for everyone to understand how much he deserves to be back on the big league roster. Entering Sunday night’s contest against the Syracuse Mets, Garcia is batting .327 with eight home runs, 30 runs batted in, and 38 runs scored in 40 games played at Triple-A Rochester. For context, he’d be leading the Nationals in each of those categories by a wide margin except for home runs (Juan Soto is ahead of Garcia by one, but he has twice as many as anyone else on the team).

Washington has argued – although I’d contend that it’s a convenient excuse they’ve hid behind – that they want Garcia to be a shortstop long term, but that he hasn’t been consistent enough at the position. What seems to be lost – even aside from his gaudy production at the plate – is that he’s only committed three errors in his last 29 games at shortstop.

I don’t think he has to remain at shortstop past this season. I believe he’s destined for a move to second base before too long, but he’s acquitted himself more than adequately at shortstop this season.

The more important matter in this discussion is the “service time” game. At the major league level, you’re awarded one day of service time for each day you spend on the roster. Once a player accrues six full seasons of service time, they’re eligible for free agency. It’s one of the more questionable loopholes the MLB has left in its rulebook, but it’s something teams around the league find ways to maneuver around.

If the Nationals had carried Garcia on their active roster from Day 1 of this season and never sent him back down to the minor leagues, he would’ve been scheduled for free agency following the 2026 season.

Last week, he passed what essentially was the cut-off date for his service time, so the Nationals could promote him today and still preserve his contractual rights through 2027 (his age 27 season).

Now the question is how to make room for him on the big league roster.

As it now stands, the Nationals are carrying 12 position players, 14 pitchers, and a utilityman – although primary infielder Ehire Adrianza is in the midst of a rehab assignment. In a week, Adrianza will be eligible to be reinstated from the 60-day Injured List, but, for argument’s sake, let’s ignore him for now.

If the Nationals want to switch to an even split of pitchers and hitters, this becomes pretty simple. Relief pitcher Andres Machado was recalled as the 27th man for Saturday’s doubleheader. When the Nationals DFA’d Sanchez, they kept Machado on the active roster – whereas the extra man would typically be optioned back to the minor leagues.

Washington could simply send Machado back down at any point and replace him with Garcia. In any season prior to 2022, that’s likely what they would’ve done. However, the implementation of the designated hitter has drastically diminished the value of backup position players to the point that carrying four of them on a nightly basis doesn’t seem worthwhile.

There is one caveat, though. At some point soon, the league will be required to go “13 and 13”. The date on which this will happen has been pushed back multiple times, but the current date is June 19.

If the Nationals want to stay at “14 and 12” until that date, the equation gets a bit more complicated. The choice would likely come down to the pair of incumbent, timeshare shortstops Alcides Escobar and Dee Strange-Gordon. I’d opt to move on from Escobar, who’s been the slightly worse hitter this season and doesn’t provide the positional versatility nor speed that “DSG” brings.

The next most likely DFA candidates are probably Maikel Franco or Lane Thomas, but both seem very unlikely at this point in time.

Searching For A Fifth Starting Pitcher

Stephen Strasburg’s second rehab start at Low-A Fredericksburg came on Sunday. He’s not a candidate to join the rotation yet, as he probably needs two or three more minor league appearances before he’s big league ready again. Also, he won’t be available to pitch again until Thursday.

That sets the stage for the race for a temporary fifth starter. Saturday’s doubleheader destroyed the typical calculus, as if the current four rotation members pitch on standard rest, there’s a vacancy on Wednesday.

The easiest fix would be to use Josh Rogers and/or Paolo Espino in that game. Neither of them could likely throw more than four innings, but the combination of them might be able to get the Nationals to the late stages of the game. Rogers is presumably more stretched out – or at least closer to it – since he started a few games in early/mid April.

Top prospect Cade Cavalli pitched for Rochester on Saturday, and he did so quite well. Cavalli tossed seven shutout innings on only 75 pitches, allowing only three base runners (two singles and a walk) and striking out six Triple-A Mets. This, however, seemed like an outlier outing for him as through nine starts this year, Cavalli’s ERA sits at 5.58, and his cameo at Triple-A last season was even worse. Saturday was promising, but ideally you’d like to see him back it up a few more times. Still, 75 pitches is a light workload, so he might be available a day earlier than normal.

It’s a similar situation for Cole Henry, the organization’s No. 3 prospect in the eyes of most experts. On the same day at Double-A Harrisburg, Henry threw a perfect, 40-pitch four innings. He owns a pristine 0.76 ERA in seven starts this season, and he pitched to the tune of a 2.30 ERA in his professional debut last year. If the Nationals want to reward effectiveness and use someone whose last outing wasn’t much more than a relief appearance, Henry makes a lot of sense. The biggest downside is that his innings are being managed and he hasn’t lasted past four innings in any game this season.

Left-hander Evan Lee (Washington’s No. 17 prospect, per MLB Pipeline) made the Friday start in Harrisburg. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t one of his better outings. Neither was his prior start, and there was a quick IL assignment sandwiched in between. However, he still owns a 3.60 ERA this year and has stuck out 37 hitters in 30 innings. He’s also already on the club’s 40-man roster, as they chose to protect him from last offseason’s Rule 5 Draft.

Lastly, there’s Jackson Tetreault (pictured at the top of the story), who I’ve watched in person a couple times – most recently last September in Harrisburg. He turns 26 years old this week and isn’t regarded as a top 30 prospect, but he’s been Rochester’s most reliable starting pitcher this year. In his start Friday, he threw six strong innings and dropped his ERA to 3.35. I can confirm that his “stuff” isn’t flashy, but he has a great feel for pitching, which allows him to get by without running into too much trouble.

“Talk Nats” on Twitter suggested an interesting idea. The Nationals could start Rogers or Espino for a couple innings – similarly to a “bullpen game” – and follow them up with Lee or Tetreault from the opposite side of the mound. Depending on which way they want to go, they could turn to Rogers (left-handed) and Tetreault (righty) or Espino followed by Lee.

With that said, ahead of Sunday’s game, Dave Martinez seemed to offer a hint at what he’d prefer to do. Mark Zuckerman of MASN Sports tweeted the following:

“Davey Martinez suggested last night's DFA of Aaron Sanchez was prompted by a need to clear a 40-man roster spot for Wednesday's fill-in starter at Mets. Based on pitching schedules, Rochester RHP Jackson Tetreault (4-2, 3.35, started Friday) would line up best.”

I asked Zuckerman how much of this was directly from Martinez’s mouth, as opposed to conjecture by Zuckerman, but he didn’t respond. However, Zuckerman also stated on the “Nats Chat” podcast – which he co-hosts – that he doesn’t think there are any ideal options, in his opinion.

Zuckerman is correct that Tetreault offers the best combination of big league readiness and scheduling consistency. He’s also someone who could easily be DFA’d if he doesn’t perform well – making room for Strasburg or another option – without running much risk that another organization would claim him off waivers.

In line with Zuckerman’s tweet and the notion that the Nationals would be looking for someone outside the 40-man roster (therefore, not Evan Lee), I think Cavalli and Henry are reasonably viable options. It would likely have to be in a short appearance in tandem with a long reliever, though. If that’s the case, I’d prefer Rogers – like “Talk Nats” suggested – over Espino.

There’s only one thing I would be actively opposed to: throwing a complete bullpen game. The Nationals already don’t have enough quality arms in their starting rotation. They need to use every opportunity they have to give players auditions. Unless they’re considering moving Rogers back into the rotation, I believe they need to use someone from Double-A or Triple-A this week.

Other Minor League News and Notes

Wow, that took me down more of a rabbit hole than I expected, so if you’re still reading, I salute you and encourage you to follow me on Twitter (@stephen_newman1) for similar in-depth analysis.

One promotion that’s already happened that caught my eye is left-handed reliever Matt Cronin. He didn’t give up a run in 14 appearances (16 and one-third innings) in Harrisburg this year, and he was equally effective in his debut outing for Rochester. He’s averaging far north of a strikeout per inning this season – and each season of his pro career. “NexGen Nats” on Twitter recently compared his overall pitching profile to Sean Doolittle, and I wouldn't be surprised if Cronin is playing a Doolittle-like role for the big league squad by the end of this season.

Injury-riddled former first-round picks Jackson Rutledge (No. 4 prospect) and Mason Denaburg (No. 29) have both been back on the mound for Fredericksburg recently. Neither have performed like they would prefer to, but simply putting in the work in a live setting is the much more important component of their comebacks and overall development. Denaburg’s return is particularly notable, since he hadn’t pitched in a game since 2019 due to shoulder surgery, Tommy John surgery, and a pandemic-induced cancelled season in between.

Shortstop Brady House’s productivity has dipped lately, but there are a few factors in play. He was briefly on the IL not long ago, he’s had some bad luck in terms of getting hit by pitches, and – perhaps most significantly – he leads all of Low-A in percentage of pitches thrown to him that are offspeed. He was crushing every fastball he saw in April, and the response has been to stop throwing them to him. He’ll likely adjust before too long, but he’s 18 years old and still learning in that area.

Centerfielder Jeremy De La Rosa (No. 13 prospect) is looking like a budding superstar. He owns a .300/.400/.500 slash line – the Anthony Rendon special – with 17 stolen bases in only 41 games for Fredericksburg. Remember when Victor Robles was supposed to do this?

Third baseman Sammy Infante (No. 20 prospect) has been nearly as sensational. He’s up to 12 home runs for Fredericksburg. Ironically, he was selected with the compensatory draft pick that Washington acquired when they lost Rendon in free agency.

Lucius Fox (No. 22 prospect) didn’t hit much while he was in Washington early this season, but he is in Rochester. Through 14 games, he’s batting .289 with a .385 on-base percentage, five extra-base hits, and eight runs scored.

Embrace The Future!

Speaking of future additions, I’m planning to release a story about the MLB Draft pretty soon. The draft doesn’t begin until July 17, but experts have begun to release mock drafts and player rankings, and I have insight and opinions on those that I’d like to share. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, though, as for now, let’s stay focused on players that are already in the organization.

We’ll be seeing some new faces in DC very soon. Luis Garcia will be back where he belongs, another young arm will join the starting rotation, and players like Matt Cronin are working their way into the mix for a major league roster spot – or, in the case of other prospects, a promotion of some capacity.

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Thursday, 18 August 2022

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