WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - There have long been differing opinions around baseball on the proper way to use a No. 5 starter. Should he pitch every fifth game, regardless of any off-days on the schedule? Should teams take advantage of that schedule and skip over the worst starter in the rotation in favor of the best starters? Should teams view that position as something of a revolving door, shuttling different starters back and forth from the minors in an attempt to control their workload?
The Nationals have tried all of these methods over the years, to varying degrees of success. At the bottom end of the spectrum was last season’s plan, which included a revolving door of several No. 5 starters who shuttled in and out of the rotation.
Even though Joe Ross was penciled in for the job, the club decided to take advantage of its April off-days, have Ross open the season at Triple-A Syracuse, give one start to veteran Jeremy Guthrie and then bring Ross up later in the month.
It turned into a disaster, one that included Guthrie giving up 10 runs in two-thirds of an inning in what proved to be the final big league appearance of his 13-year career and ultimately included Ross blowing out his elbow and needing Tommy John surgery.
Suffice it to say, the Nationals won’t be trying anything along those lines in 2018.
“I don’t know if we’re going to play any games with not having a fifth starter and kind of piecing that together,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “That backfired on us last year when we tried to do that. I learned my lesson with that one. I tried to get too cute.”
The dilemma facing the Nationals this spring is that Jeremy Hellickson, who was signed to a minor league contract over the weekend, likely won’t be ready to begin the season. So the Nats might elect to make A.J. Cole their No. 5 starter for the first turn or two through the rotation, while Hellickson builds his arm up in Florida and possibly Syracuse before eventually taking over while Cole (who is out of options) moves to the bullpen.
Whatever route they take - on this or other roster matters - the Nationals intend to make their decision before heading north Sunday night.
“When we leave for D.C. to play (Tuesday’s) exhibition game, we’ll have a real understanding of what the 25-man roster will be,” Rizzo said.