Does Hellickson signing address Nationals’ rotation need?

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - For months, we wondered how motivated the Nationals were to try to upgrade their rotation, whether they’d go all-in on Jake Arrieta, get involved in the trade market for Gerrit Cole or ultimately decide simply to stick with what they had and then re-examine the situation later this summer.

What seemed clear from the get-go, though, was that any addition made by general manager Mike Rizzo would be for a top-tier starter, someone who could slot in behind Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and give the Nationals a fearsome trio of hurlers atop their rotation. Rizzo didn’t appear to be all that interested in modestly upgrading things with a true No. 5 starter. No, he wanted a No. 3 starter.

Mike-Rizzo-NLDS-presser-sidebar.jpgSo that made Friday’s breaking news - the Nationals agreed to terms on a minor league contract with journeyman Jeremy Hellickson, according to a source familiar with the deal - feel a bit like it came out of the blue.

Hellickson is a No. 5 starter, at least on this team. But is he markedly better than the in-house candidates the Nationals already had? There’s a case to be made that he’s not.

Hellickson owns a 69-69 record, 4.12 ERA and 1.252 WHIP in eight career big league seasons spent with the Rays, Diamondbacks, Phillies and Orioles. He was the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 2011 with Tampa Bay and followed that up with a 3.10 ERA the following season. But in the five years since then, he’s managed to post an ERA better than 4.52 only once.

Of greater concern is the fact Hellickson is coming off a dismal season split between Philadelphia and Baltimore in which he finished 8-11 with a 5.43 ERA over 30 starts.

How does that compare to the Nationals’ in-house candidates? Well, if you add up the numbers produced last season by Joe Ross, Edwin Jackson and A.J. Cole, you get a 13-14 record and 4.71 ERA in 34 starts.

That’s basically what the Nats got from their No. 5 starters in 2017. It wasn’t particularly good, but it also didn’t prevent them from winning their division by 20 games.

Ross is out of the picture in 2018 until at least July while recovering from Tommy John surgery. And Cole has been unimpressive so far this spring. Jackson remains what he is: an innings-eater who sprinkles in one dominant start for every two or three duds.

But Erick Fedde has looked awfully good in the last month, with his fastball velocity back into the mid-90s and his confidence high after a difficult season. Rizzo spoke glowingly about the 25-year-old as recently as Thursday.

“The way he’s pitching now is how I expected him to pitch,” the GM said. “We see him as a mid-rotation guy, and the stuff he’s featuring continues to allow us to believe that.”

A “mid-rotation guy” is better than a No. 5 starter. Fedde may not be a proven commodity yet, and the Nationals do still need to monitor his innings. But there was every reason to believe he would emerge from the pack at some point this season and seize the final spot in the Nationals rotation.

Now that picture has turned murky. Hellickson is assured of nothing, just like anyone else who signs a minor league contract. But the Nats didn’t sign him to send him to Triple-A Syracuse and wait around for someone in the big league rotation to get hurt. He’ll need to show the club’s coaching staff and front office that he’s healthy and ready to go once he reports to camp, and perhaps it will take a week or two into the regular season for that process to be completed. But if all goes well, he’s in line for the fifth starter’s job. He wouldn’t have signed here if he didn’t have reason to believe that.

The Nationals will hope Hellickson bounces back from his ragged 2017 and pitches more like he did in 2016 (12-10, 3.71 ERA). The move from hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park and Camden Yards to the fairer Nationals Park should help some.

But Hellickson’s ceiling isn’t all that high. At best, he’ll be good for 30 starts and hope the Nats lineup scores more runs than he surrenders. He certainly isn’t being brought in to be a major part of a postseason rotation.

Which leaves the Nationals where, exactly? Maybe they modestly upgraded the final spot in their rotation. But if the ultimate goal is to supplement Scherzer and Strasburg with another premier starter, Rizzo probably is still going to find himself browsing the trade market sometime this summer.

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