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Nationals' Opening Day roster settling into shape

VIERA, Fla. -- The Nationals took several steps toward settling their Opening Day roster on Tuesday, but the process remains incomplete going into the club's final two days of Spring Training.

The Nats released left-handed reliever Michael Gonzalez before the game against the Mets, and did the same afterward with right-hander Chris Young and infielder Jamey Carroll. They also optioned lefty Xavier Cedeno, righty Ryan Mattheus and first baseman Tyler Moore to Triple-A Syracuse.

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Meanwhile, the club informed rookie right-hander Aaron Barrett that he will make the big league bullpen. Infielder/outfielder Jeff Kobernus and catcher Sandy Leon are the final two options for the last bench spot; Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark remain as fifth-starter candidates.

Barrett, 26, was one of the pleasant surprises of camp after posting a 2.15 ERA in 51 relief appearances for Double-A Harrisburg last season. He tossed 9 2/3 scoreless innings this spring, allowing five hits and striking out seven without issuing a walk. Although the Nats contemplated keeping Cedeno as a third lefty behind Jerry Blevins and Ross Detwiler, Barrett's performance ultimately swayed them.

"When it came down to it, Aaron showed us that he's able to compete at this level, certainly, and he's attacked guys, and he'll be a valuable piece to our bullpen and get in a lot of games for us," manager Matt Williams said.

Carroll appeared to be a strong contender for a backup infield job after signing a Minor League deal this offseason, but Williams did not see the 12-year veteran getting the playing timing time to justify a roster spot. Instead Williams wanted to give Carroll an opportunity to latch on with another club.

"That was the toughest one I've had so far," Williams said of the Carroll decision.

Lack of playing time also affected Moore, with Scott Hairston cemented as a right-handed backup outfielder and Ryan Zimmerman now an option at first base.

After a strong debut in 2012, Moore struggled in a limited role last season, going 1-for-18 with 12 strikeouts as a pinch-hitter. Williams believes Moore will be best served getting consistent at-bats at Syracuse.

"It's tough when you're not getting those at-bats," Williams said. "He's a player that needs them to stay sharp. I can understand that."

Kobernus offers speed and an extra right-handed bat, having stolen 42 bases for Syracuse last season in addition to hitting .318. On the other hand, Williams could go with Leon as a third catcher, with the idea of freeing up starter Wilson Ramos or backup Jose Lobaton to pinch-hit on days they aren't in the lineup.

Early in camp, Mattheus came down with costochondritis, inflammation of the cartilage connecting the ribs and sternum. He didn't pitch in a game until last Thursday, and on Tuesday made his third appearance of an inning or less. Williams wants Mattheus to be able to go multiple innings, so Mattheus will head to Syracuse to continue building up his arm.

Whereas Gonzalez never quite got it going after signing a Minor League deal on March 4, Young had pitched well this spring, posting a 3.48 ERA and holding hitters to a .211 average in 10 1/3 innings. Still, the fifth spot in the rotation will come down to two second-year pitchers, Jordan and Roark, unless Doug Fister needs to begin the season on the disabled list.

Fister returned from a bout of inflammation in his right elbow to pitch on Saturday against the Marlins, and he is expected to be ready to start on April 6 against the Braves. He is slated to pitch in a Minor League game on Thursday and then possibly another before that time, and a hiccup in his progress could lead the Nats to keep Jordan and Roark.

"It depends on Doug and how he feels," Williams said. "Again, we're going to push him again and we'll go forward with that. All indications are that he's going to be fine, that he feels fine, but we'll push him to another level next time out; it depends on Doug."

Andrew Simon is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @HitTheCutoff.

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