Yesterday's Drew Storen-for-Rick Ankiel swap left the Nationals with an unconventional roster: an eight-man bullpen and a four-man bench. And Mike Rizzo made it clear that odd alignment was created to keep as many relievers as possible in the mix for this weekend's four-gamethree-day showdown with the Braves.
But Rizzo also made it clear this arrangement won't last long. The Nationals don't need eight relievers long-term, and they do need a fifth player off the bench. So we should be expecting more roster moves from Rizzo in the near future as the club tries to put together various pieces of a complicated, 25-man puzzle.
"We're going to go with it until we have to make another roster move that's dictated by the health of somebody coming back," the GM said yesterday.
In that regard, there are two names of rehabbing players to keep in mind: Jayson Werth and Chad Tracy. Each is close to coming off the disabled list and rejoining the Nationals' active roster.
Werth's return is still a couple of weeks away; he's due to begin a rehab assignment with Class A Potomac tonight, his first game action since he broke his left wrist trying to make a diving catch on May 6.
"We're going to be cautious with him, because we're going to need him in the stretch drive," Rizzo said. "We're going to make sure he's healthy. We're going to give him ample plate appearances so he can see ample pitches and when he comes up here he can hit the ground running."
Tracy, out since late May with a sports hernia that required surgery, is closer to rejoining the active roster. The veteran corner infielder and pinch-hitter extraordinaire had to abort his first rehab assignment with Class A Potomac earlier this month but has been taking batting and fielding practice at Nationals Park the last few days and appears just about ready to return to one of the organization's affiliates to see more game action.
"His injury is a little trickier," Rizzo said. "Those sports hernias are ... it's not so much about swinging the bat. It's about exploding out of the box after you hit the ball. It's lateral movement and that type of thing. He's a veteran player that's had that injury before. He'll dictate when he's ready to go out for rehab."
Whether it's a week, two weeks or three weeks before Tracy andor Werth return, the Nationals will at some point have to clear roster space for each veteran. One will take the spot currently held by the extra reliever. The other will bump someone else off the Nats' bench, leading to a dilemma.
Who draws the short straw from the current group of reserves? Backup catcher Sandy Leon is safe, at least until Jhonatan Solano recovers from an oblique strain. Utilityman Steve Lombardozzi will remain because of his production and versatility. That leaves outfielder Roger Bernadina, left fielderfirst baseman Tyler Moore and utilityman Mark DeRosa, with room on the roster for only two.
DeRosa has easily been the least productive of the group, though he's well-respected as a clubhouse leader, and manager Davey Johnson has touted him all along as a key to this team's success. Bernadina is out of minor-league options and has played well over the last two weeks. Moore has also hit well as a rookie, though he does have options.
The bench decision may pale in comparison to the decision Rizzo and Johnson are going to have to make with their bullpen in a few days. Quite simply, there's no obvious candidate to lose his job at the moment.
The least effective reliever on the roster is Henry Rodriguez, but he has no options and club officials remain committed to the erratic right-hander over the long haul. Michael Gonzalez is a relatively recent addition to the group, but the veteran lefty has pitched well and likewise is out of options.
That leaves one of two right-handers with impeccable stats so far this season: Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen. Each boasted sub-2.00 ERAs (until Stammen served up a three-run homer to David Wright yesterday) and each has filled an important need: Mattheus as a setup man, Stammen as a right-handed long reliever.
"You've got a bullpen which is performing extremely well," Rizzo said. "The bullpen guys with options are too valuable to send out, and anybody you designate and send out is going to be taken by somebody else. So guys like Mike Gonzalez and Henry Rodriguez, they're too valuable for us in 2012, and Henry beyond 2012. We couldnt take the chance of them getting claimed by another club."
Ultimately, Rizzo will have no choice but to part ways with two players from his current roster. That parting, though, doesn't have to be permanent. Should he choose to send down those players who still have minor-league options, Rizzo could ensure all remain in the organization. And all could be brought back on Sept. 1 once rosters expand to 40.
These won't be easy decisions. But Rizzo has to decide what makes the most sense for his club. Now, in September and beyond.