Spring training storylines: The No. 5 starter competition

We’ve reached the final countdown to spring training, so we’re counting down the most important storylines surrounding the Nationals this spring. We continue today with the battle for the No. 5 starter’s job ...

It’s not unusual for a club to hold an open competition for at least one spot in its opening day rotation. It is unusual, however, for a club to have four elite starters already locked in and three relatively experienced competitors in the running for that final job, with all three feeling like they can stake some claim to it.

One year ago, the Nationals weren’t quite ready to go into spring training without a veteran No. 5 starter. They signed Jeremy Hellickson - who was effective in 2018 - for $1.3 million and then watched as he put up a 6.23 ERA in nine early season outings, suffered a shoulder injury and never pitched again.

Even with Hellickson’s struggles, the Nats got a decent performance out of their No. 5 starters in 2019. Those guys collectively made 37 starts and went 12-7 with a 4.22 ERA over 183 1/3 innings. More impressively, in 19 starts after the All-Star break they went 9-3 with a 3.35 ERA, helping lessen the effect of the first prolonged injured list stint of Max Scherzer’s career.

Because of that, this time around the Nationals will give three homegrown right-handers the opportunity to win the job, one of the few truly open competitions set to play out in West Palm Beach.

OK, technically Joe Ross isn’t homegrown, because he was drafted by the Padres. But the Nats acquired him at age 21, and he essentially was developed in their farm system. Regardless, he probably comes to camp as a mild frontrunner for the assignment, based on his performance down the stretch last season (and the fact he’s out of minor league options).

Voth-Delivers-Blue-Front-Sidebar.jpgAlso out of options, though, is Austin Voth, who for a time in midsummer looked like a keeper. A shoulder injury threw a wrench into the rest of the righty’s season, but he’s healthy again and hoping to earn his way back into the rotation. Given his contract status, he could still make the big league club as a long reliever.

Erick Fedde was more highly touted than the other two, given his status as a first-round pick in the 2014 draft. The lanky right-hander, though, has yet to be able to put it all together for extended stretches. Combine that with his one remaining option, and he may find himself the odd man out come late March and have no choice but to open his season in either Fresno or Harrisburg.

No matter their various standings within the organization at this moment, all three pitchers should get ample opportunity to state their cases this spring. They may not all get to start every fifth day, but (especially early in camp when starters’ workloads are severely restricted) all should throw a comparable number of innings, some of them serving as “piggyback” starters out of the bullpen.

As the calendar shifts to March and pitching coach Paul Menhart needs to start lining up his rotation for the regular season, the club will need to begin making some decisions. That could offer the first serious clue about the identity of the winner of this competition.

What kind of rope will manager Davey Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo give their eventual choice? At some point, it feels like they need to give one of these guys an opportunity not only to make the rotation but to stay there and not feel like their job is on the line every time they take the mound. Then again, a team that intends to be in a pennant race once again can’t afford to be timid and leave a struggling starter out there if a better option is available to them.

That will be the tightrope club officials have to walk at some point. But first things first: The Nationals need to spend the first month of spring training giving Ross, Voth and Fedde ample opportunity to pitch. Then they need to make their choice and hope it’s the right one.

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