WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - When Erick Fedde’s 2016 season ended, the right-hander was no better than the third man in the Nationals’ prospect pecking order. Splitting time between Single-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, Fedde logged 23 games, including 22 starts, in his first full season coming off Tommy John ligament replacement surgery performed three days before the Nats snagged him with the 18th overall pick in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft out of University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
The gains Fedde, 23, made last season in refining his changeup and tightening his command were noticeable. And that led to an uncomfortable offseason, where Fedde repeatedly listened to his name being mentioned in trade talks. One day he was going to the White Sox for lefty Chris Sale, the next he was headed to Pittsburgh in exchange for center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
But Fedde had finally found his comfort zone with the Nationals, who patiently rehabbed him after Tommy John. He didn’t want to go anywhere.
As it turned out, he didn’t. When the Nationals traded right-handers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez to the White Sox as part of the three-pitcher package that yielded center fielder Adam Eaton, Fedde’s place in the organization was further cemented. He’s now in his first major league camp, and has inherited the mantle of the Nats’ top pitching prospect with the departure of Giolito and Lopez, two players above him on the depth chart.
“I was kind of in disbelief. I couldn’t believe that it happened,” Fedde said yesterday while standing in front of his locker in the Nationals clubhouse. “I called (Giolito) right away and talked to him and he was excited for me because it moved some guys out of the way at the top of the prospect list. Excited for him because he’s going to some new scenery.”
Fedde is in line to start the season in the rotation at Triple-A Syracuse and be one of the first pitchers summoned if there’s an injury or issue in the Nationals rotation.
“It’s hard not to notice your name being touched on every once in a while,” Fedde said of the persistent offseason trade buzz. “But it’s one of those things you can’t control - you try not to worry about it. I’m happy I’m still here. I really like this organization.”
Trading Giolito and Lopez didn’t come without a cost. While the Washington rotation appears set in stone with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross, there are questions about the team’s starting pitching depth. Right-handers A.J. Cole, Austin Voth and Fedde are the likeliest reinforcements at Triple-A.
Fedde was pumped when Mark Scialabba, the Nationals director of minor league operations, called over the winter with the news that he’d be going to major league spring training for the first time.
“Super excited to get the call,” Fedde recalled. “Talked to Scialabba, he told me I got to come out. I was really excited, especially being my first camp. Getting in here and not knowing what the new stadium and the new clubhouse was going to be like, then to walk in and see this awesome place and my name on a locker is pretty exciting.”
Fedde, who went 8-5 with a 3.12 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 121 innings last season, wants to soak up whatever he can in his time at big league camp. Given the way his changeup has advanced over the past year, he’s eager to learn from Strasburg and Scherzer, both of whom have had success with the pitch.
“I’m going to have all the time in the world here to pick those guys’ brains,” Fedde said. “They’ve had the top-notch success at this level, so anything I can learn from them is going to be helpful.”
Fedde wants to build on his successful first full minor league season, which taught him about the rigors of the game.
“You learned how long (the season) is and how it can be straining on a body,” he said. “Just learning tips from other guys on staying in shape and getting through the whole season. Where I want to be is even a longer season, so just trying to work on being ready to pitch for a whole big league season.”
But Fedde, despite his placement near the top of the organizational top prospect list, is keenly aware he has yet to accomplish anything at the major league level. Perhaps that’s why he’s employing a workmanlike approach to his first camp with the major league team, taking nothing for granted. More than anything, he wants to show he belongs - and that he’s worthy of his newfound status as the team’s top mound prospect.
“I want to keep my head down and go to work,” he said. “I’ve proved absolutely nothing at this level, so it’s just kind of a little nervous, excited - making sure I’m doing the best I can without being over the top.”