The Final Twenty Roster Spots
Over the last two seasons the average NL team used 45 players during the course of the season and only the Cincinnati Reds used less than 40 at 38 in 2012 and 39 in 2013. Watching the off-season unfold it is obvious that most experts and fans focus on the 25 man roster. No team is going to make it through the season using their Opening Day roster, and those final twenty players can be just as important. Look at what happened with the Cardinals and Michael Wacha down the stretch or how Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan filled in for injuries on the Nationals. It is close to impossible to evaluate those roster spots as many of the players that fill them are either unknown in the system or currently on other teams. We can still try and there are some clues as to who will help the Nationals and why the depth in 2014 is much better than it was in 2013.
It might not appear that different at first blush. Chris Young was resigned and will be back in AAA as pitching depth but from the start in 2014 he is going to be behind Ross Ohlendorf, Taylor Jordan, Nate Karns, Tanner Roark, and by mid-season could be behind AJ Cole, Taylor Hill, Paul Demny, and Blake Schwartz. The same goes for the bullpen. Gone are Zach Duke and Henry Rodriguez but if things go wrong to the degree that they did in 2013 then the call-ups won't be a 22 year old from AA and a cast off of the Houston Astros. Instead they will be top relief prospects in Aaron Barrett, Richie Mirowski, and Rob Wort. Barrett and Mirowski both have the chance to be integral back of the bullpen arms in the future with 2013 K/9 rates over 12.0 in AA and BB/9 rates of 1.7 for Mirowski and 2.7 for Barrett. These are power, strikeout arms that pitch with control, and both have set-up/closer upside written all over them. This is a lot better depth than the cast of characters the Nats trotted out to the bullpen when Henry Rodriguez, Zach Duke, Ryan Mattheus, and Drew Storen struggled in 2013. And don't forget a few of those listed as starters could pitch out of the bullpen as well as Christian Garcia possibly being healthy.
The bench could also have more depth. Zach Walters and Jeff Kobernus are perfectly serviceable as utility infielders if Danny Espinosa can't handle the job. A side note on that: there is no reason to believe Danny Espinosa can't be a utility infielder. It is primarily a defensive position and guys like John McDonald have carved out 15 year MLB careers with a .601 OPS and a reputation as nothing but a solid glove. While John McDonald will never be talked up as a great MLB player he still did it for 15 years and earned over $12.5 million for his career. The case should be fairly easy for Matt Williams to make to Danny Espinosa as to why being a utility infielder may be the best choice for his career and if he plays well enough he can earn back a starting role somewhere in the majors. As of right now Espinosa has very little trade value and Mike Rizzo is unlikely to want to trade him for peanuts.
With that tangent aside let's get back to the bench. Most of the depth here isn't currently on the roster. If something goes wrong with the starting position players Nate McLouth will keep the outfield from being in as much trouble and the off-season isn't over yet. It is very likely that the Nationals are going to add an addition veteran like Eric Chavez or Jeff Baker to the bench as well as a back-up catcher. But if something were to happen to Ian Desmond there is no replacement without a trade, but any team that loses a player that has been the best at his position over the last two seasons is going to have trouble replacing that player. The deepest part of the Nats system is in the outfielder. If Span were to go down with a long term injury the Nationals could call up their top position prospect Brian Goodwin and if he isn't ready then maybe Steven Souza Jr. will be. The Nationals have outfield depth and Souza Jr. is also someone the Nationals could use as an additional right handed bench bat or platoon partner for LaRoche in the latter half of the season.
The Nats still have work to do when it comes to position player depth but the presence of Danny Espinosa as the current utility infielder shouldn't stop them from adding someone like Omar Quintanilla or Cody Ransom on an MiLB deal. That will not only give the Nats some Spring Training competition but some AAA depth should something happen. The pitching depth is much stronger than it was in 2013 and as injuries strike other teams in the rotation and bullpen the Nationals could use that pitching depth to fill any position player needs that crop up. The only thing that is certain right now is that the Nationals are going to need around twenty players who aren't going to start the season on the active roster. Those players could be deep in the Nationals own system, top prospects we've all heard of, or deadline acquisitions who are currently on another team's roster. No matter who they are there is a strong chance that one of those final twenty is going to be the difference between playing in the World Series or not.