WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Nationals are "not quite there" to rule second baseman Daniel Murphy out for Opening Day, but general manager Mike Rizzo acknowledged on Monday they are getting close to that point, considering the timetable it would take for him to return.
Murphy has yet to appear in a Grapefruit League game as he rehabs from offseason microfracture right knee surgery. He has been taking on-field batting practice and started to show off some range when fielding grounders, and he could increase his baseball activity soon. Rizzo reiterated this will be a big week to determine Murphy's progress.
The Nationals have been careful not to rush Murphy's rehab. Once he is healthy, they want to avoid a setback. Considering that and with Opening Day just 10 days away, it would be difficult to see a scenario where Washington rushes him to be ready.
"I think it's going at a good pace," Rizzo said of Murphy's rehab. "I like the strength in his leg and his knee. I just think that we have to be really careful with him because of his legs. There's not a hitter in baseball that utilizes his lower half more than him.
"That's his whole key to hitting. It's like a pitcher with a bad ankle. He's got a bad ankle, so what does he do? He changes his mechanics and blows an elbow. So a hitter that's not using his legs when he's used to using his legs, I don't want him compensating for something else and either changing the way he hits or injuring something else."
Cole to make roster, Hellickson not being rushed
The Nationals will not have to rush right-hander Jeremy Hellickson if he is not ready to break camp on Sunday, when the team returns to Washington. Rizzo said that the team structured Hellickson's contract -- a Minor League deal with a Spring Training invitation signed on Saturday -- with a later opt-out date than the typical veteran deal that allows him to request his release a few days before Opening Day.
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That could allow Hellickson to stay in West Palm Beach for an extended spring training and give Washington the chance to call him up and add him to the roster even if he is not the club's choice as the fifth starter to begin the season.
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"It's hard to throw anybody into the fire when you're not prepared," Rizzo said. "Because as we've seen in the past, you just never catch up. When you don't have your Spring Training, it just snowballs and it never catches up.
"We've seen it time and time again, with Joe Blanton and [catcher Matt] Wieters last year. When you don't have your footing and your base to start the season, you're constantly playing catch-up. We don't want that. It doesn't behoove anyone to do that."
Rizzo gave no assurances, only that Hellickson would be in competition for the fifth starter's spot, which includes A.J. Cole and top pitching prospect Erick Fedde. Rizzo did say that Cole, who is out of Minor League options, would make the 25-man roster. Cole had been the favorite to win the job all spring, although the Nats have stopped short of saying the job is his. The Nats could perhaps start the season with Cole in the rotation, with Hellickson stashed at the team's complex, preparing for the season and ready to take over if Cole scuffles.
However, Rizzo insisted that signing Hellickson did not have anything to do with any wavering confidence in whether Cole or Fedde were ready to enter the rotation.
"No, my thought process hasn't changed," Rizzo said. "We like the rotation we have. [Hellickson] just adds another layer of depth for us. It gives us a Major League pitcher that has started a bunch of games in the National League and the American League East. We've faced him many times. We know him. We know how he pitches and how he reacts. He's a good, capable pitcher."
Hellickson threw a 60-pitch bullpen upon arrival to camp on Saturday and has another scheduled before he makes his Grapefruit League debut during one of the team's split-squad games on Friday. Although Hellickson struggled during the 2017 season when he posted a 5.43 ERA, Rizzo said the Nationals identified some differences in his delivery from last season compared to years prior and are hoping he can turn it around with a mechanical adjustment.
Trea Turner left camp prior to Monday's 9-1 loss to the Marlins at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium because he is dealing with an ingrown toenail on his right foot. Manager Dave Martinez said Turner, who was not scheduled to play on Tuesday, is expected to miss a few days.
Turner is the second Nationals player that has dealt with an ingrown toenail this spring, after Bryce Harper missed about three days to undergo minor surgery on his.
"That's been the trend of spring," Martinez said.
Kelley returns to mound
Shawn Kelley rejoined the Nationals on Monday after missing the past few days to attend to a personal matter. He also returned to the mound for the first time since March 11, surrendering three runs on three hits, including a pair of homers, in the seventh inning on a windy afternoon.
"The biggest thing with him is to keep him healthy," Martinez said. "But to miss five, six days and come back today -- he threw the ball well. Couple home runs, but wind aided, and he threw the ball really well."
Stephen Strasburg will take the mound for his third Grapefruit League start when the Nationals host the Marlins at 1:05 p.m. ET on Monday at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Listen live on Gameday Audio.