Spring training storylines: Who's the fifth starter?

The final countdown to spring training has arrived, so we're spending the final days of the offseason counting down the Nationals' top storylines of the spring. We begin today with the open competition for the fifth spot in the opening day rotation ...

The Nationals have been a contender for six full seasons now, and throughout that time, they have maintained that status by employing one of baseball's most talented, deepest starting rotations. And throughout this entire stretch, we've pretty much always known exactly which five pitchers would fill out that rotation.

Indeed, you have to go all the way back to 2012 (the club's first year of contention) to find a spring training that included any sort of competition for a spot in the opening day rotation. Back then, it was a three-way battle between John Lannan, Ross Detwiler and Chien-Ming Wang, with Detwiler ultimately getting the nod after Wang suffered a mid-March injury and Lannan was surprisingly optioned to Triple-A.

Every spring since then, the Nats have reported for camp with all five rotation slots secured ...

2013: Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Dan Haren, Ross Detwiler
2014: Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Tanner Roark
2015: Max Scherzer, Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Fister
2016: Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Roark, Joe Ross
2017: Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Roark, Ross

Sure, there were injuries along the way that forced others into starting roles, but no jobs were up for grabs at the start of camp in any of those seasons. Which makes this spring very different.

Four of the rotation slots are locked up, with Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez and Roark all back together again. But the fifth slot legitimately is undecided as the Nationals prepare to convene in West Palm Beach, Fla., in five days.

Given the vast number of unsigned free agents still out there seeking jobs, it's entirely possible this situation could change by Wednesday. Or maybe even later in February or March. But club officials have maintained all winter they're not in the market for any free agent starters. And if they engaged in any trade talks over the last three months, those talks didn't produce a deal.

Erick-Fedde-throws-red-sidebar.jpgAnd so, barring a change of heart, it appears the Nationals' No. 5 starter come opening day will be either A.J. Cole or Erick Fedde.

"We have great confidence in our in-house options," general manager Mike Rizzo said earlier this winter. "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."

The Nationals may feel good about their options, but there's no denying the dramatic drop-off in track record from their top four starters to their candidates for the fifth spot. Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez and Roark all boast career ERAs of 3.64 or better, having each thrown at least 750 big league innings. Cole and Fedde, meanwhile, own a combined 5.12 ERA over a total of 116 major league innings.

This certainly isn't what you've come to expect from a Nationals organization that has at times featured too many quality starters, not a pair of unproven right-handers competing for a rotation spot. But the club does seem willing to give this a shot, for a few reasons ...

* Cole, while underwhelming in the larger picture since making his major league debut in 2015, did make some strides late last season, with a 2.70 ERA over his last seven appearances (four starts). And the lanky 26-year-old was a top 100 prospect not that long ago. Perhaps he's finally ready to take that critical next step in his development.

* Fedde, while underwhelming in the first three starts of his career last summer, remains a highly touted prospect, a 24-year-old former first-round pick who admittedly was rushed to the majors last summer and then forced to pitch on an irregular schedule. Nobody has given up on his chances of developing into a quality big league starter.

* Ross is expected back at some point in the summer, once his rehab from Tommy John surgery is complete. Once healthy, the right-hander should be able to slot right back into the rotation and perhaps become a significant contributor down the stretch.

* The club has a pair of veteran fallback options in Edwin Jackson and Tommy Milone, each experienced starters who will be in camp on minor league contracts and could be summoned somewhere along the way if needed.

* Even if they don't get many quality performances from their No. 5 starters, the Nationals appear to be strong enough to once again lead the way in their division, making the identity of their fifth starter rather insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

How, though, will this spring play out? We've yet to hear new manager Dave Martinez or pitching coach Derek Lilliquist map out a game plan, but it stands to reason both Cole and Fedde will get ample opportunities to start Grapefruit League games and make their cases for the job.

Most observers would say Fedde is the surer long-term bet, with a higher ceiling and more room to grow. Cole, though, could have one significant, tactical advantage: He's out of options, meaning he can't be sent to the minors anymore without first passing through waivers. That would seem to bode well for him to, at worst, still make the opening day roster as a long reliever.

There's plenty of time for all this to play out, and again it bears repeating that a signing or trade for a more established starter remains a possibility before the club heads north at the end of March. But for now, the Nationals are going to have themselves an honest-to-god spring competition for a spot in the rotation.

Everyone is forgiven for forgetting what that's like. Because it's been a while.

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