Ross' once-promising career with Nats comes to an end

There was a time, believe it or not, when Joe Ross looked like he might prove just as valuable to the Nationals as Trea Turner. Maybe even more so.

When Mike Rizzo swooped into trade talks between the Rays and Padres in December 2014 and helped those two teams complete a deal that sent Wil Myers to San Diego and several prospects to Tampa Bay, most attention was focused on Turner, who couldn’t even officially be part of the trade for another six months because he had just been drafted that year.

But Ross was no secondary piece. A first-round pick of the Padres himself, the right-hander was a highly touted prospect in his own right, and after posting impressive numbers at every level of the minors he earned a promotion to D.C. in June 2015.

Three starts into his big league career, Ross had two wins, a 2.66 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings. And by the end of the 2016 season, just as Turner was beginning to make a name for himself as a dynamic center fielder for the Nats, Ross was the proud owner of a 12-10 record, 3.52 ERA and 1.222 WHIP across 181 2/3 innings.

He looked like he was going to entrench himself as a key part of a star-studded Nationals rotation for years to come.

That, of course, is not how things eventually played out. Ross struggled during the first half of the 2017 season and then got the devastating news he needed Tommy John surgery. He returned healthy in September 2018 and figured to again be a big part of the rotation entering the 2019 season but surprisingly was bumped to the bullpen in favor of free agent Jeremy Hellickson.

Thus began the strangest year of Ross’ career, one that saw him shuttle back and forth between Washington and Triple-A Fresno, sometimes starting, sometimes relieving, never really getting a chance to stick in one role in one place for an extended period of time, yet remarkably tabbed to make an emergency start in Game 5 of the World Series after Max Scherzer was scratched with a stiff neck. He was never the same again.

Ross opted to sit out the 2020 season, citing health concerns as Major League Baseball attempted to play an abbreviated season while the pandemic was still raging across the world. The team respected his decision and gave him a chance to return the following spring and compete with Erick Fedde and Austin Voth for a spot in the rotation. His performance after that was spotty, with the occasional quality start sprinkled in among more subpar outings.

Then came another devastating blow: Ross was diagnosed with another elbow injury in the summer of 2021. Despite concern he would need Tommy John surgery again, he and doctors decided to see if rest and rehab could work instead. They didn’t. After a failed attempt to come back healthy last season, Ross’ elbow pain returned. A new MRI revealed the ligament was torn. The second Tommy John surgery of his career was scheduled.

Though he was a semi-regular presence in the clubhouse late last season as he embarked on his latest long-term rehab program, Ross felt like an outsider. As the franchise completed its dramatic teardown with the August trade of Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the Padres for five prospects, Ross found himself sitting alongside mostly unfamiliar faces.

His future with the organization now was tenuous. Set to become a free agent for the first time in his career at season’s end, he knew he faced a tough challenge convincing anyone to sign him when he would still be months away from a potential return from a second major elbow surgery.

The Nationals, despite having forged a good relationship with Ross since they day they acquired him, just weren’t going to commit to him now. With their focus on the new core group of young starters including MacKenzie Gore, Cade Cavalli and Josiah Gray, they didn’t find reason to re-sign a 29-year-old who has pitched in 20 big league games the last three seasons combined.

Instead, it was the Giants who announced Monday they’ve signed Ross to a minor league deal. The Northern California native will attempt to complete his comeback much closer to home.

He leaves the Nationals eight years after he was originally acquired. He finished 26-28 with a 4.26 ERA and 1.331 WHIP in 98 games, 76 of those starts.

Ross never did prove as valuable to the Nats as the other player acquired in that trade, with Turner becoming a star shortstop and eventually traded to the Dodgers for prospects. Who knows what might have been had he not suffered that initial elbow tear in 2017? Maybe he would’ve had a nice run as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter, then deservedly cashed in as a healthy free agent instead of his current situation.

It’s a reminder, though, that not every pitcher who has Tommy John surgery returns as good or better than they were pre-injury. Many are fortunate enough to follow that career path. Some, like Ross, aren’t as fortunate.

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