Defending champs set Opening Day roster

July 24th, 2020

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals returned most of their roster from the 2019 World Series championship run, but there was one glaring difference when the 30-man roster was announced just hours before their Opening Day game Thursday night vs. the Yankees.

Standout left fielder Juan Soto is starting the season on the COVID injured list after receiving positive test results Thursday morning. Washington constructed its roster for versatility, and those defensive options will be key as the Nationals defend their title in a condensed 60-game schedule.

Note: Several players appear at multiple positions.

The reliable duo of Suzuki and Gomes is back, giving the Nationals a consistent pitch-calling anchor. The dependability of the veteran catchers has been lauded during Summer Camp by the pitchers, including starter Aníbal Sánchez who said, “Those guys bring a lot of energy behind the plate for everybody on the mound.”

Suzuki and Gomes are joined by a third catcher this season with the new roster format. Up to three taxi squad players can be carried for road games, and one must be a backstop if all three spots are being filled. Read, who has the versatility to also play first base, got tabbed for that role.

Heading into this season, the plan was for the veteran trio of Kendrick, Thames and to share first-base duties. Zimmerman elected not to play this season, and Kendrick did not participate in a workout or scrimmage until July 16. Thames has welcomed increased reps at first base and embraced the defensive assignments. “I’m busting my butt over here,” he said.

Manager Dave Martinez worked with Castro when they both were part of the Cubs' organization. He has been looking forward to having him in his lineup since then. Martinez has praised both Castro’s play and positive attitude in a clubhouse. Castro brings a needed durability in a shortened season -- he played all 162 games last year with the Marlins. The Nationals have over 10,000 innings of second-base experience in Kendrick to back up Castro. Wilmer Difo also logged 112 games at second in 2018.

The starting shortstop role belongs to Turner. The only question surrounding him is if the Nats tinker with their batting order and shift him from the leadoff spot. When they are in need of a backup, Difo has played 104 games at shortstop for the Nationals over four seasons, and he has manned the position in Summer Camp.

The 22-year-old Kieboom, who is the club's No. 1 prospect, will platoon third-base duties with the veteran Cabrera, who got the nod for Opening Day. Martinez is eyeing the opponent’s pitching matchups to determine who will man the hot corner -- take the Opening Day matchup against Yankees ace Gerrit Cole as an example.

The Nationals' plan was to keep their starting trio intact from last season. Soto, however, tested positive for COVID-19 on Opening Day and placed on the IL. He was replaced in left field by Stevenson, but that defensive assignment is not locked in and the depth has several backup options.

Taylor, who is entering his seventh season with Washington, has a career .990 fielding percentage in the outfield. The Nationals are familiar with Stevenson, a lefty who has been utilized as a pinch-hitter and has been in their organization since 2015. Bonifácio is new to the team this season, but far from new to baseball. Martinez has lauded the 35-year-old for his character and versatility. In addition to outfield, Bonifácio has played second, short and third.

The only question mark in the Nationals’ pitching rotation was who would be named the fifth starter after Joe Ross elected not to play this season. The Summer Camp competition came down to Voth and Fedde, and Voth was announced as the starter ahead on Thursday. The starting rotation led the Majors with a 14.7 bWAR last year.

The Nationals bolstered the back end of the bullpen this past offseason by adding Harris, who led the American League with a 1.50 ERA as a member of the Astros, and re-signing Hudson. They decided to utilize Fedde as a long man out of the ‘pen after Voth was named the fifth starter. There are innings to be filled, though, after Roenis Elias and Wander Suero spent time on the IL and began the season at the alternate training site to continue their ramp up to pitch in live game action. This is an opportunity for 28-year-old Finnegan to make his Major League debut.