March Madness: Nats Roster Edition

The best month of the year takes place between March 16 and April 15. The month begins with the greatest day of the year (my birthday) and includes all of March Madness as well as Opening Day. As a person who likes all sports, it’s pretty much paradise, and leads to ideas for out-of-the-box baseball blog posts to pass the time in Spring Training.

Since March Madness is on my mind, it seemed to be appropriate to turn that into a bracket-themed post to allow the Nationals fighting for a spot to battle each other. Before digging into the bracket, let’s handle my roster assumptions first:
CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS (100% locked down a spot on the Opening Day roster)
SP (5): Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann
RP (4): Casey Janssen, Craig Stammen, Drew Storen, Matt Thornton
C (1): Wilson Ramos
IF (5): Ian Desmond, Yunel Escobar, Danny Espinosa, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman
OF (1): Bryce Harper

THE BUBBLE – FIRST FOUR OUT (Injuries that will keep players out beyond Opening Day)
Erik Davis – After Tommy John surgery last April, Davis is still easing back into true pitching shape. He would have been a longshot to make the team anyways.
Denard Span – Likely out until May due to a core muscle injury, his second of the offseason.
Jayson Werth – Looking more and more like he could play on Opening Day, but for the sake of our bracketmania fun, we’ll say he returns a week into the season.
Nate McLouth – We heard earlier this week that McLouth’s Opening Day availability was in jeopardy, and he’s still feeling pain when throwing. While he was awful in 2014, a healthy McLouth could be an asset to the Nats, so they would be wise to make sure he’s fully recuperated before returning, so I’ll put him on the DL to start the season as well.

THE BUBBLE – LAST FOUR IN (Injuries that will not keep players out beyond Opening Day)
Anthony Rendon – I’m not a doctor, I just have a gut feeling that Tony will be good to go on Opening Day.
Yunel Escobar – Yunel finally played in a game this week, and barring setbacks appears to be good for Opening Day as well.
Drew Storen – It’s hilarious that a relief pitcher broke his hamate bone, as that is the quintessential hitter’s injury. He’ll be fine for Opening Day since it was his left hand.
Stephen Strasburg – Probably just faked that he turned his ankle so he could watch the San Diego State vs. Duke game. On second thought, that probably wasn’t the greatest idea.

Now, without further ado, your brackets:
RELIEF PITCHER REGION (3 available spots)
#1 Aaron Barrett vs.
#16 Nobody that can beat him

Barrett hasn’t done anything to lose his bullpen spot (unless you count his last NLDS appearance). In 6 and 2/3 Spring Training innings, he’s only allowed 4 baserunners (3 singles and a walk) while tallying 4 strikeouts and giving up no runs. Barrett’s ST OppQual has been 8.6, which is slightly above the AAA level (10 is pure MLB talent, 8 is AAA). I’m not even going to bother matching him up against a #16 like Eric Fornataro or Evan Meek; Barrett is the Kentucky of the Nats’ Spring Training roster spot bracket.

#5 Tanner Roark vs.
#12 Blake Treinen

This battle is a lot closer than I would have initially expected, and I could really see it going either way. The Nats have a track record of sending established players to AAA both with cause (trying to fix Drew Storen and Danny Espinosa) and without it (John Lannan had options), and Roark could be sent down to keep his arm stretched out for when an injury occurs. While Roark has struggled against solid competition (9 runs and 15 hits allowed in 9 innings against a 8.9 OppQual), Treinen has excelled, allowing just 2 runs (none earned) on 5 hits and 1 walk in 7 and 2/3 innings (8.4 OppQual). I will continue to beat the SPRING TRAINING STATS DON’T REALLY MATTER drum, but just because I believe that doesn’t mean the Nats’ brass does. Treinen of course has options remaining as well, so there’s not really a right or wrong answer to this matchup. My gut has Treinen pulling off the 12-5 upset and finding his way onto the Opening Day roster, with Roark being sent down to start (and also because the Nats theoretically can use one of their starters in his long man role early on, as they don’t really need a #5 starter until 4/15).

#6 Jerry Blevins vs.
#11 Xavier Cedeno/Matt Grace

Blevins likely played himself closer into “lock” status with a shut-down NLDS (small sample size, but having playoff success on a team that didn’t have a lot of it probably puts you in good graces with the organization). He has struggled in Spring Training, allowing 6 runs on 6 hits and 2 walks in 6 and 1/3 innings against mediocre competition (7.8 OppQual), but it’s such a small sample size that it likely doesn’t even matter. Also, it’s about time Dayton got something besides an 11 seed.

I wonder what the Nats wanted to see out of Xavier Cedeno in Spring Training. He seems like a guy that they like, but at the same time, they barely pitched him during his call up last September, even when the division was already locked up. Cedeno needed a lights-out Spring Training to hop over Blevins, and he didn’t get it done, allowing 3 runs on 2 homers in 6 and 2/3 Spring Training innings (7.9 OppQual). The Nats are likely hoping they can sneak him through waivers (perhaps when other teams start waiving the guys who lost ST battles in their organizations) and keep him from electing free agency by negotiating some sort of opt-out date with him.

Matt Grace is obviously over seeded here at #11, but I’m just following the NCAA here by putting UCLA in the tournament when they otherwise shouldn’t be. He has not allowed a run so far in Spring Training, throwing 6 and 2/3 shutout innings allowing 6 hits and 1 walk, but his 7.2 OppQual is barely above AA quality. Grace can easily be sent to AAA with no hard feelings, while putting him on the roster over Blevins or Cedeno would likely force both of them out of the organization, destroying any upper-level LOOGY depth that the Nats have.

CATCHER REGION (1 available spot)
#1 Jose Lobaton vs.
#16 Sandy Leon/Dan Butler 

This job was obviously Lobaton’s to lose, but after a subpar 2014 campaign (.234/.287/.304, 0.6 fWAR), he hasn’t exactly inspired confidence with his bat in ST either (.130/.231/.217 in 26 PA). But, then again, it’s 26 Spring Training PA, so who are we kidding, Lobaton is keeping his job.

Leon struggled with the bat in between his injuries last season, and while he’s hit .316/.350/.368 in 20 ST PA, he’s not making the team. I’m struggling over whether or not he’ll make it through waivers at the end of Spring Training; it seems obvious that someone would want a young switch-hitting catcher with solid tools behind the plate, but teams seem to prefer veteran backup catchers, so his young age could theoretically work against him. Either that, or I’m overanalyzing it.

Dan Butler, acquired from the Red Sox over the offseason in the Danny Rosenbaum trade, is the Nats’ Sandy Leon insurance, as he still has an option left and can fill in at the ML level when Wilson Ramos takes his standard DL stint. He didn’t hit his way onto the team in Spring Training (.222/.300/.222), but at 10 PA, he wasn’t really afforded an opportunity to begin with. I bet he’ll be in DC at some point in 2015, and not just as a tourist.

INFIELDER REGION (2 available spots)
#3 Dan Uggla vs.
#14 Kevin Frandsen/Kila Ka’aihue 

Uggla has faced the highest OppQual of all Nats infielders this Spring Training at 9.1, and has done well against them, batting .310/.459/.586 in 37 PA. He’s certainly making his case that his oculomotor dysfunction has been corrected, and as one of the original Mike Rizzo Guys™, I think he’s on the inside looking out and waving at Kevin Frandsen as the latter tries to catch the train as it leaves the station and heads north but can’t because his fog machine is too heavy.

It would be silly to count Kevin “La Cucaracha” Frandsen out of a spot, though, because that’s when his GRIT factor begins to multiply. While I will say time and time again that Spring Training stats don’t really matter, here I am looking at Frandsen’s .107/.235/.107 triple slash. Where do I begin? 3 for 28 with no extra base hits is really bad, and since gritty players aren’t allowed to walk, his 4 BB/2 K ratio actually works against him. But his “ability” to “play multiple positions” might afford him a spot on the team due to enough injuries to actual baseball players.

Kila Ka’aihue is kinda fun to try and say the first time, but then you realize you sound like an idiot and it’s not fun anymore. The 30 year old has hit .222/.313/.593, with a double and 3 dingers in 32 plate appearances, but his inability to play the outfield hurts him as he battles against three other first basemen who can “play the outfield” in Clint Robinson, Tyler Moore, and Mike Carp.

#7 Clint Robinson vs.
#10 Ian Stewart

In Utopia Natstown Spring Training, Clint Robinson is the easy choice for this spot, as Anthony Rendon’s knee is magically healthy. But this isn’t Utopia Natstown, and the Nats may decide that they need someone else on the ML roster who can play third base besides Danny Espinosa if Rendon needs some rest. Both of these guys have hit well in Spring Training, with Robinson batting .344/.432/.688 (7.6 OppQual, 37 PA) and Stewart hitting .323/.400/.645 (8.2 OppQual, 35 PA), but the Nats’ potential need to have another 3B type gives Stewart more of a chance than he originally had. Still, I think Robinson gets this role.

OUTFIELDER REGION (3 available spots)

#1 Michael Taylor vs.
#16 Derrick Robinson

Not only has Taylor not done anything to lose the Opening Day starting CF spot that opened with Span’s injury, he’s done more to lock that spot down. Taylor is hitting .324/.342/.730 with 2 doubles, 2 triples and 3 dingers in 38 plate appearances (8.4 OppQual).

Derrick Robinson has received more opportunity at playing time than I figured he would, but he has been the opposite of good in Spring Training, hitting .138/.194/.241 in 31 PA against an 8.1 OppQual. At just 26 years old, the switch-hitting outfielder is still getting his timing back from missing the 2014 season due to shoulder surgery, and could work himself up to push Tony Gwynn, Jr. for a similar role if he is playing well by the All-Star Break.

#4 Tony Gwynn, Jr. vs.
#13 Mike Carp 

Tony Gwynn, Jr. is so fast that he came out of nowhere and became a favorite to make the team only three weeks after signing with the team. He’s not going to hit anything close to the .364/.432/.545 triple slash he’s put up in Spring Training (8.3 OppQual), but he can provide a similar skillset to Nate McLouth, with good speed and defense and the ability to at least fake a passable OBP.

This is a matchup nightmare for Mike Carp, because Tony Gwynn, Jr. will run circles around him. Carp’s abilities are duplicated by Clint Robinson from the left side and Tyler Moore from the right, and he hasn’t done himself any favors by having no extra base hits in Spring Training. The Nats could conceivably stash him in AAA, though.

#7 Tyler Moore vs.
#10 Kevin Frandsen 

The Nats could conceivably carry two natural 1B who can try to play OF in Robinson and Moore, but the Nats could also take this chance to trade Moore. The out-of-options slugger has done a little to improve his trade value in Spring Training, knocking 9 extra base hits in 39 PA against an 8.4 OppQual, good for a .351/.359/.676 triple slash. Uggla’s excellent Spring Training could make him the righty power option on the bench, lessening the need for Moore, and with right-handed power being a somewhat coveted MLB asset, the Nats could trade him for more than a bag of balls (not for a legit prospect though, of course). That being said, I think the Nats hold on to him for at least the first few weeks of the season, waiting to see one last time if he’s the power monster they think he could be.

I've already discussed Frandsen, and I’m starting to convince myself that the fairly large amount of bench spots available might actually hurt him, as they don’t need to worry about finding a 25th man who can “play multiple positions” and provide a clubhouse presence by hazing MASN reporters. I’m not sure that even adding an LED disco ball to his 25th man arsenal that already includes a fog machine and three cases of Natty Lite will help Frandsen make this team.

So, if you weren’t following along, my Nats 25 man roster:
SP (5): Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann
RP (7): Aaron Barrett, Jerry Blevins, Casey Janssen, Craig Stammen, Drew Storen, Matt Thornton, Blake Treinen
C (2): Jose Lobaton, Wilson Ramos
IF (7): Ian Desmond, Yunel Escobar, Danny Espinosa, Anthony Rendon, Clint Robinson, Dan Uggla, Ryan Zimmerman
OF (4): Tony Gwynn, Jr., Bryce Harper, Tyler Moore, Michael Taylor

And last but not least, it’s important to determine what we should call the month that takes place from March 16 to April 15. Mapril vs. Aarch is a pretty evenly matched 16 vs 16 play-in game, but I'm taking Aarch. Whoever wins is going to get destroyed by the #1 overall seed, May, anyways.

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