Veteran Nationals reliever Joaquin Benoit will not be ready for the start of the season owing to a forearm strain, Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post reports (Twitter links). His timeline is not yet known, but he is not throwing for the time being.
The Nats had added Benoit on a one-year, $1MM deal at the start of camp, hoping that he’d deepen a relief unit that has a fair bit of uncertainty behind its late-inning trio of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler. The results weren’t there for Benoit in 2017, but he still brought a mid-nineties heater and generated plenty of swings and misses.
If Benoit is to engineer a bounceback in his age-40 campaign, it’ll have to come after he works back to health. He had been knocked around a bit in his first three spring outings, allowing three earned runs on five hits before going on the shelf with the arm ailment.
On the one hand, the news adds to the questions facing the Nats as they seek to avoid a repeat of their bullpen problems from the first half of the 2017 campaign. Shawn Kelley is, like Benoit, an established hurler who is trying to recover from an off year. The out-of-options A.J. Cole will be on the roster and could factor in the bullpen, at least once Jeremy Hellickson is ready to take over the fifth starter’s job.
On the other hand, the extra Opening Day roster spot could help the organization deal with a pile-up of possibilities. Beyond the prospective five-man unit of players noted above — i.e., Doolittle, Madson, Kintzler, Kelley, and Cole — there are loads of options and an ongoing lack of clarity.
In terms of righties, the Nats likely can’t count on anything from Koda Glover, who is still not at full health. Trevor Gott has produced nine blank frames this spring, so he could step into Benoit’s shoes. Otherwise, Austin Adams and Wander Suero also represent 40-man relief options (with the latter already having been optioned). Edwin Jackson and Cesar Vargas were both brought in on minors pacts, though the former is perhaps likelier to serve as rotation depth and the latter has already been sent out of camp.
There are yet more possibilities on the southpaw side of the equation. The hard-throwing Enny Romero has been markedly ineffective in Grapefruit League action. While Matt Grace has allowed only three earned runs, he has also coughed up 16 hits in his 10 2/3 spring frames. Both are out of options. Sammy Solis can be optioned, but he has also racked up 11 strikeouts against just one walk in his eight innings of action in camp. Veteran non-roster players Tommy Milone and Tim Collins could conceivably also be considered after showing well in their opportunities thus far.
It’s certainly still possible to imagine the Nats looking at outside options, though Greg Holland is perhaps the only free agent who’d represent a clear upgrade and the team hasn’t shown much evident inclination to pursue him. (Holland would obviously also represent a fairly expensive target.) The trick in looking at players from other organizations is in managing the 40-man roster. That’s the same general quandary the Nationals will already face in balancing the numerous non-roster and out-of-options players under consideration for just a few open jobs.
Regardless of the precise decisions made, it seems as if the club will end up making quite a few reliever transactions late in camp — if not also throughout the season. While the bulk of the rest of the roster is settled, and the Nats can always weigh mid-season trade acquisitions as needed, the bullpen again appears to be an area of potential intrigue for the defending NL East champs.