Fedde optioned to Triple-A to begin season (Nats lose 12-5)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - The Nationals expect Erick Fedde to be a significant part of their big league rotation for a long time. But that day won’t be coming quite yet.

Fedde was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse this afternoon, a move the organization’s top pitching prospect had sensed was likely for a while, certainly since the Nationals signed veteran Jeremy Hellickson last week.

Though he didn’t make the major league roster, Fedde did make an impression on the Nationals’ new coaching staff, which made it clear to the 25-year-old he’ll be pitching in Washington before long.

Erick-Fedde-throw-red-spring-sidebar.jpg“He had a really good spring training,” manager Davey Martinez said. “The velo is back, which is nice. The conversation was very honest. I told him: ‘Hey, at some point you’re going to help us. So just go down there, knock the door down and continue to develop and be good. Because you’re good.’”

Martinez had seen Fedde pitch once before, last summer when he faced the Cubs in only the second start of his career. Fedde labored that day, allowing four runs, 12 baserunners and three homers in only 5 1/3 innings. His velocity also was beginning to tick down, ultimately dropping into the high-80s in his next start, which prompted the club to shut him down for the rest of the season with a forearm strain.

Fedde looked like an entirely different pitcher this spring. His fastball velocity was back into the mid-90s, and he carried himself in a more authoritative manner than Martinez remembered watching from across the field last year.

In six Grapefruit League appearances (two starts) Fedde posted a 2.45 ERA, allowing four earned runs in 14 2/3 innings.

“I saw somebody who, to me, throughout the whole spring, gained confidence,” Martinez said. “That last outing, you could tell he was confident. He knows his fastball’s back, his two-seamer’s really good, he can throw a four-seamer 97, his breaking ball was good, his changeup is really good. And that’s good to see. A player who gains confidence like that, the sky’s the limit.”

With Fedde set to anchor Syracuse’s rotation for now, the back end of the Nationals rotation is coming into focus. Hellickson, who signed a minor league deal last week, will make his first start Friday night against the Marlins in Jupiter. At the same time, A.J. Cole will start the club’s other split-squad game at home against the Astros.

Given Hellickson’s late signing, the 30-year-old probably needs a couple more tune-up starts before he can join the rotation. It’s possible he’ll remain in Florida or maybe report to a minor league affiliate to begin the season, with Cole serving as the Nationals’ initial No. 5 starter. If and when Hellickson shows club officials he’s ready, he could then slide into the rotation, with Cole possibly shifting to the bullpen to serve as a long reliever.

Update: The Nats have gone through some significant stretches this spring without producing much at the plate, but they’ve brought their bats to First Data Field tonight. They roughed up Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler for five runs and seven hits in only two innings. And the production has come from just about everyone. Matt Wieters has an RBI single, raising his average to .308. Michael A. Taylor put down a perfect safety squeeze to bring home another run. Tanner Roark (batting eighth) ripped a double to left-center, then scored on Adam Eaton’s sharp single up the middle. Eaton (now 5-for-9 at the plate) later scored from second and slid across the plate on Anthony Rendon’s single to center. It’s 5-0 Nats after three.

Update II: Things have taken a surprising (and dark, from the Nats’ perspective) turn here. The Mets scored nine - yes, nine - runs off Roark in the bottom of the fourth, and it was every bit as ugly as it sounds. Under normal circumstances, Roark never would have been allowed to stay on the mound that long. But on March 22, the only number that matters is his pitch count, so he stayed out there until he got to 81. It’s not the kind of performance he or the Nats wanted, but of course it doesn’t count. So they’ll have to hope it doesn’t translate at all into next week, when it does count. New York leads 9-5 after five.

Update III: And it’s only gotten uglier. Shawn Kelley gave up two homers in the bottom of the sixth, letting three runs score overall. That’s now five homers surrendered by Kelley in 6 1/3 innings this spring, and that’s a disturbing continuation of a disturbing trend from last season. Nats now trail 12-5.

Update IV: Both offenses quieted down after the sixth. The Nats made a little noise in the ninth, with Spencer Kieboom and Chris Dominguez starting off the inning with singles. But after Alejandro De Aza grounded into a fielder’s choice, Pedro Severino hit into a double play to end the game. The Mets overcome an early five-run deficit to take the Nats down 12-5.

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