PITTSBURGH - The Nationals didn’t make a spur-of-the-moment decision to try out Erick Fedde as a reliever. General manager Mike Rizzo said the move had been in the works for a while and was prompted by multiple factors involving both the organization’s top pitching prospect and the current state of the big league bullpen.
“It’s a good way to get your feet wet in the big leagues,” Rizzo said. “You start as a reliever, then we can gradually stretch you out and put you back as a starter at any time. Also, being a couple years out of Tommy John (surgery), we’re still controlling his innings. This is a way we can make sure that he can pitch the whole season with us and stay within our pitching parameters. And it addresses a direct need for us in the big leagues.”
Fedde, rated the Nationals’ top pitching prospect, had been performing well as a starter for Double-A Harrisburg. But the organization decided to have him make a one-inning relief appearance Tuesday night - he allowed one run on one hit, one walk, one wild pitch and one double steal - and now will continue to develop him out of the bullpen, with an eye on a promotion to Washington sometime this season.
Rizzo all but acknowledged he intends to call Fedde up to the majors in 2017, which played a significant role in the organization’s decision to have him change roles.
The Nationals, though, have known all along they would need to limit the 24-year-old’s workload. Fedde threw 121 total innings in 2016, so he probably would have been restricted to 160 or so this season. That won’t be a factor if he pitches out of the bullpen.
“If he was farther away from the big leagues in our mind, we probably would just shut his innings down when they were over, and utilize that,” Rizzo said. “But seeing what we’ve seen so far in his minor league career, and we see his developmental track and the timetable we have in mind, we thought all along we’d probably see him in the big leagues this year. This is just a way, I think, to expedite the process, control the innings and fill a need that we’re looking to fill.”
The Nationals’ bullpen struggles, which continued today when Joe Blanton was placed on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation, leave the door open for a prospect like Fedde to have an impact sometime in the near future.
“We thought all along that if we were to see Fedde in the big leagues this year, it would probably be in a relief role, a long reliever, that type of thing,” Rizzo said. “But as the bullpen struggled and we had three guys on the disabled list at one time, we thought this was a good time to use the transformation to get him into the bullpen.”
Though the Nationals are willing to try this out with Fedde, they aren’t considering a similar move with Joe Ross. The right-hander, who was supposed to be the club’s No. 5 starter this season but was demoted to Triple-A Syracuse after only three starts, will continue to pitch every fifth day in the minors.
“No, we think he’s too valuable as a starter,” Rizzo said. “His stuff is too good. He’s a proven starter. And starting pitching is extremely important for our organization, like everybody else. So we consider him a starter.”
The Nationals are working with Ross at Syracuse to correct his arm slot, which has tended to drop since he missed 2 1/2 months with a shoulder injury last season.
“Physically, he’s 100 percent,” Rizzo said. “He’s been 100 percent since last year. But psychologically, that’s what we’re trying to work on. It’s muscle memory and trying to get consistency at the release point. Especially when you’re starting to get fatigued. You saw in that 50-pitch area, we saw that the arm slot drifted a little bit down. That’s the hump we’re trying to get over.”
Update: We’ve got a nice pitchers’ duel brewing here tonight. Jacob Turner has gone toe-to-toe with Gerrit Cole, each right-hander posting five consecutive zeros to get this game started. Turner has allowed three hits; Cole has allowed only one (Jose Lobaton’s bloop single to center in the top of the second). Neither team has seriously threatened yet.
Update II: Well, so much for that. Turner impressed for five innings, but he ran out of gas in the sixth. Two walks, a hit-by-pitch, a stolen base and the big blow: Josh Bell’s three-run homer to right on a 3-1 fastball right down the pipe. Just like that, the Nationals trail 3-0 and will need to rally against Cole and the Pirates bullpen.
Update III: Things have escalated quickly here. The Nats finally got on the board in the top of the seventh thanks to Brian Goodwin’s RBI double off the right field wall. But then Goodwin got picked off second base to prevent any more damage. And then the Nats bullpen turned a manageable 3-1 deficit into a less-manageable 6-1 deficit. Oliver Pérez didn’t retire either batter he faced, with both scoring. Matt Albers did retire three batters, but not before putting two men on base and allowing another run to score. This game has turned in a hurry, and now the Nats are in trouble, down 6-1 with six outs to go.
Update IV: That’ll do it. Nats lose 6-1. They’ll try to take the series tomorrow afternoon with Tanner Roark on the mound against Tyler Glasnow.