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There was never quite a Jefry Rodriguez Narrative in Washington. That would have required him being a fixed part of the Nationals’ plans — not a fringe pitcher who, in November 2018, was traded to the Cleveland Indians in the deal that netted catcher Yan Gomes. But before and after Rodriguez left, there was mixed messaging about whether he was a future starter or reliever.

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And now, at last, it could all get cleared up this spring.

The Nationals have signed Rodriguez to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training, according to two people with knowledge of the agreement. Rodriguez struggled with Cleveland in 2019, missed 2020 with back and shoulder injuries and was non-tendered this month. He battled poor command, too, though it was health that limited him to eight starts and two relief appearances. Then he returned to Washington for an outside chance to make the club.

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But there are additional wrinkles after Ross opted out of playing in 2020. By doing so, he forfeited his salary — also an agreed-upon $1.5 million — and a full year of major league service time. As a result, he will be arbitration eligible for a fourth time after next season. That will delay his ability to become a free agent, giving the Nationals an extra year of team control. Ross was acquired in the 2014 trade that also brought Trea Turner to Washington.

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With Ross’s deal out of the way, the Nationals have two more arbitration-eligible players in Turner and Juan Soto. They happen to be franchise cornerstones. Turner, a 27-year-old shortstop, is in his third year of eligibility and was set to make $7.45 million in 2020 before salaries were prorated. Soto, a 22-year-old phenom, is in line to be Super Two eligible and is due for a big raise on the $629,400 salary assigned to him by the Nationals this past year.

Spencer Kieboom built his life around baseball. Then he quietly walked away.

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Washington can negotiate salaries with either player at any time. But if they don’t agree before 7 p.m. Wednesday — the non-tender deadline — the Nationals will have to officially tender contracts to Turner and Soto. This is one of the bigger formalities of baseball’s offseason. The club is of course interested in retaining its two best hitters. Devising long-term contracts for Turner and Soto comes at different phases of the team’s five-year plan. In the meantime, though, they’ll have to go through the arbitration process and negotiate with a pair of young stars who tore through the pandemic-shortened season.

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That leaves a lot of details to be worked out. Ross’s deal followed the logic that, without playing in 2020, his initial salary for that season was transferrable. It thus makes sense that he was first to settle with the Nationals.

Without Ross this past summer, the club leaned on Austin Voth and Erick Fedde to round out its rotation. Prospects Wil Crowe and Ben Braymer got shots to start, too. But after Voth fumbled an opportunity, and with Fedde serving well in a do-everything role, it’s likely that Ross has the inside track for a rotation spot. He was the last-minute fill-in for Max Scherzer in Game 5 of the World Series in 2019. He was trending in the right direction before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2017. He was solid for parts of 2019, working his sinker-slider combo, and could slot in behind Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and an undetermined fourth starter whenever the season begins.

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The start date, like everything else, is solidly up in the air. So is whether there will be a universal designated hitter and how big the playoff field will be. Ross, on the other hand, knows how much money he’ll make if everything goes as planned. That’s one small box to check off.

Will that really show whether the Nationals view him as a starter or reliever? Maybe not. Nonroster invitees have to impress enough to earn a coveted 40-man roster spot. The Nationals padded their rotation depth by adding Rogelio Armenteros off waivers Dec. 7. They otherwise have Wil Crowe and Ben Braymer after Kyle McGowin, once a depth starter stashed in the minors, was moved to the bullpen in 2020. So Rodriguez could arrive in the spring, throw a bit and be gone by the regular season, off to find another chance. But how he is used in West Palm Beach, Fla., will be telling. With a few backfield workouts, a few scrimmages, the mystery of Jefry Rodriguez should fade.

First, a short history: At the general managers’ meetings in November 2018, The Washington Post asked Mike Rizzo about adding a versatile, multi-inning reliever. Josh Hader had just lit up the playoffs for Milwaukee. It built on what Andrew Miller did for Cleveland in 2016, fitting the trend of shorter starts and more creative bullpen usage. Rizzo entertained the idea.

Well, he sort of did.

“Sure, I’d love that,” he said, sarcastically hinting that pitchers such as Hader and Miller are a rare find. “Who do you have in mind?”

That’s when a reporter suggested Rodriguez.

“Jefry’s certainly got good stuff, multi-innings, rubber arm, can bounce back. I still see him as a real good starting piece for us,” Rizzo said. “To me, the industry, us as an industry, we develop more relievers than starters. I like to get pitchers that have the capacity to start every opportunity to start, keep them stretched out.”

Now fast-forward three weeks, right after Rizzo traded Rodriguez and outfielder Daniel Johnson for Gomes. When asked about dealing Rodriguez, thus thinning the Nationals’ rotation depth, Rizzo took a slight turn.

“It’s one starting candidate we don’t have anymore,” Rizzo said. “We thought Jefry’s primary role on our team in the future was going to be in the bullpen.”

 

At the time, this was either the truth or post-trade spin. Perhaps it was some combination of the two.

But even before Rizzo’s parting comments, it was fair to ask whether Rodriguez could flip to the bullpen. He has a mid-90s fastball and a decent curve, and he hasn’t developed a second off-speed pitch. The Nationals briefly tested him as a reliever in 2019. As they did, Manager Dave Martinez daydreamed — out loud — about Rodriguez becoming Dellin Betances, a four-time all-star then with the New York Yankees. The logic was that, with only a few outs to record, Rodriguez’s velocity could tick up and overpower hitters. It was a big ask.

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