LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - It’s the Winter Meetings, and it’s Mike Rizzo talking, so take this all with a large grain of salt. But a few hours after arriving at the Swan and Dolphin Resort for this week’s annual baseball industry gathering, the Nationals general manager suggested he’s not in the market for another experienced major league starting pitcher, instead talking up the two inexperienced in-house candidates he already has in Erick Fedde and A.J. Cole.
“We have great confidence in our in-house options,” Rizzo said in his first media session of this year’s meetings. “A.J. Cole threw the ball extremely well his last seven starts last year. The stuff was good, it upticked at the end of the season. And of course we love Fedde. He’ll be healthy and have some major league time under his belt. So we feel good about where we’re at.”
If the Nationals do proceed in that direction and go with one of the two young right-handers as the final member of their rotation, it would be the first time the club has gone to spring training without five set-in-stone starters since 2012, when John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler all were in competition for the No. 5 job (it eventually went to Detwiler, after Wang was injured two weeks before opening day).
It certainly hasn’t been Rizzo’s modus operandi - at least not since his club has been a legitimate contender - to have any uncertainty in his rotation heading into a season. If anything, he has shown a propensity to attempt to acquire big-name starters even when there was no overt need for one, from the signing of Edwin Jackson before the 2012 season to the signing of Max Scherzer before the 2015 season to the pursued trade for Chris Sale last winter.
That said, the price tag for elite free agents right now is exorbitantly high - Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta each are expected to receive nine-figure deals - and Rizzo doesn’t typically like to spend dollars on second- or third-tier free agent arms that may be available.
A trade seems more plausible this winter, depending on other clubs’ willingness to move established pitchers like the Pirates’ Gerrit Cole, the Rays’ Chris Archer or the Royals’ Danny Duffy.
But if you take Rizzo at his word, the Nationals don’t intend to dive into that market, preferring instead to add a few low-cost pieces that could be stashed away at Triple-A in case they’re needed down the road.
“What we’d be looking for is depth, just because it’s a long season and very few seasons you go through with five starters,” he said. “We want to add to our depth, not only in our rotation, but also in our bullpen, and just kind of do our stuff along the periphery of the roster.”
There’s certainly motivation on the Nationals’ part to get a more extended look at Fedde, the organization’s top pitching prospect who made his big league debut this summer but was underwhelming in three starts - 16 runs, 25 hits in 15 1/3 innings - before being shut down with a flexor mass strain in his forearm.
The 24-year-old has made a full recovery from his injury, Rizzo said.
“He’s 100 percent right now,” the GM said. “He’s preparing for spring training. He’s not in rehab mode. So we feel good about where he’s at physically. As far as developmentally where he’s at, we thought he took another step in his progress last year. A guy that we think is right on the cusp of being a very valuable commodity for us in the big leagues.”
Cole, meanwhile, did make some late-season strides after a string of unimpressive performances on a start-by-start basis over the last three seasons. Owner of a 5.63 ERA in his first 13 career starts, the 24-year-old posted a 2.42 ERA in his four most recent starts.
The Nationals also hope to have Joe Ross (who had Tommy John surgery in July) back in midseason.
Count new manager Dave Martinez among those intrigued to see firsthand what the organization already has in stock.
“We’ve got some pretty good arms, that I do know,” Martinez said. “I’ve seen videos of some of the younger players pitching, and they’re ready to compete. That fifth starting job is open, and I can’t wait to go out to watch them pitch competitively and see where they’re at. But I think with them we have qualified guys that can fill that fifth starter role.”