WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The Nationals had been saying all along they were content to enter the season picking a No. 5 starter from the pool of less-than-ideal candidates already in-house, but all along there loomed the specter of a major spring training addition.
Now, though, with only 13 days to go until the season opener, and with Jake Arrieta a Phillie, Lance Lynn a Twin and Alex Cobb still unsigned but apparently not on their radar, the Nats have all but confirmed they will indeed go into 2018 without acquiring another starter.
“We were in conversations with his representatives,” general manager Mike Rizzo said when asked Thursday about Arrieta, who signed a three-year, $75 million with Philadelphia. “Obviously we don’t discuss those things, but the Phillies got a great pitcher and a great competitor, and it’ll be exciting to compete against him.”
Who, though, will the Nationals be sending to the mound every fifth day to compete against Arrieta or any other opposing pitchers they face this season?
A.J. Cole was deemed the frontrunner at the outset of camp, based on his strong finish in 2017 and the fact he’s out of minor league options. The 26-year-old right-hander, though, hasn’t turned many heads thus far, allowing three runs and seven hits over five innings in two Grapefruit League starts, then getting scratched from his most recent outing due to an illness.
Cole, who is expected to slot right back into the rotation and start within the next few days, still has time to solidify his standing in this competition. But Erick Fedde has been noticed by club officials this spring and could be poised to force his way into the open spot if he keeps it up.
Fedde, the 25-year-old former first-round pick who was underwhelming in his first three big league starts last summer, has allowed only three runs in nine innings (though he has put 14 men on base). More importantly, after dealing with a forearm injury late last season, the right-hander has seen his fastball velocity return to the mid-90s.
“He’s in competition for the fifth starter job,” Rizzo said. “The way he’s looked is the way I expected him to look, and that’s the way he’s always looked to me, with the exception of a couple of starts last year.”
Rizzo admitted the organization put Fedde in a tough spot last season, asking him to pitch out of the bullpen in the minors for a while to limit his innings. The results weren’t great, but the club was pleased with his eventual workload and believes he’s better off for it now.
“He’s coming in fresh now,” Rizzo said. “He’s feeling good about himself. But the way he’s pitching now is how I expected him to pitch. We see him as a mid-rotation guy, and the stuff he’s featuring continues to allow us to believe that.”
There’s no question the Nationals view Fedde as a rotation stalwart for the long-term. The pertinent question right now, though, is whether they view him as a member of the rotation right now.