WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - For reasons both practical and personnel-related, the Nationals’ competition to determine a fifth starter will likely go on until the end of spring training.
“It’s gonna go” on for a while, manager Davey Martinez said.
To recap, three right-handers - Austin Voth, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde - are competing to be the fifth member of the starting rotation. All were drafted and developed as starting pitchers, and the Nationals appear ready for one of them to seize the opportunity and claim the role.
There are reasons to believe any of the three could succeed in that position. All have teased with success at one point or another, and the Nationals would like to find an in-house solution to fill in behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez.
All three have some things that may raise red flags. Ross, the only one of the trio to enjoy sustained success at the major league level, has an injury history dating to Tommy John surgery in July 2017. All three, especially Voth and Fedde, have had trouble with consistency when the Nationals have asked them to fill rotation spots.
Which means spring will tell the tale.
But who’s leading the race as the horses head down the backstretch?
Ross, 26, is clearly the most advanced of the three, having made 57 major league starts over parts of five seasons - but never more than 19 in a campaign and only 12 in two seasons after ligament-replacement surgery. He was acquired in a three-team trade with the Padres and Rays, the same deal brought Trea Turner to the Nationals.
Spring camp has been his time to shine, however - despite getting his first outing of the Grapefruit League, when he was scheduled to piggyback Scherzer in the exhibition opener, rained out after he’d warmed up. In five innings covering two starts, Ross has yet to allow a run, has yielded only one hit and one walk and has fanned two. He’s integrating a changeup into his repertoire, and Martinez and pitching coach Paul Menhart hope the addition of a third pitch will make him less predictable.
Voth, 27, was a fifth-round selection out of Washington in 2013 and has been groomed as a starting pitcher in the minors but used in both the rotation and in relief during parts of two seasons with the major league club.
He had some success last season, posting a 2-1 record 3.48 ERA and 1.065 WHIP in eight starts, over which he allowed opponents a .212/.287/.397 slash line. Voth has definitely looked more comfortable as a starter than as a reliever in his brief major league tenure. This spring, he’s made two appearances, one a start, and posted a 2.25 ERA over four innings.
Fedde, 27, was the Nats’ first-round selection in 2014 out of UNLV. He’s mostly started but also relieved; his nine games out of the bullpen last year were his first in the majors. In camp, he’s made two appearances, one a start, and posted a 4.50 ERA over four innings.
Can anything be discerned from a couple of trips through the rotation in camp?
The Nationals will try to stretch out all three pitchers, figuring one will end up in the rotation, one will end up in the bullpen as a long man and one will wind up in the rotation at Triple-A Fresno. Because he has an option remaining - an additional option to compensate for time spent on the injured list but not on a major league roster - Fedde could be targeted for the farm.
Demoting Fedde would allow the Nats to keep both Voth and Ross without exposing them to waivers - and they would likely be snatched up by some pitching-poor organization. And Fedde could build up innings and confidence in case he were needed to replace an injured hurler.
More than anything, Martinez wants to see consistency out of the three candidates. But if the Nats’ retooled bullpen turns out to be a strength, it could shorten games and lessen the need for deep outings by a fifth starter.
Though it’s difficult to handicap at this stage, Ross’ strong starts seem to give him the early edge. But there are still three weeks of camp left, and one sore arm or bum shoulder could change the organization’s thinking.
The Nats would obviously like any of the three - or all of them - to succeed. Remember, as general manager Mike Rizzo is fond of saying, “You can never have too much pitching.”
“For me, it’s ... about which guy comes out of camp healthy,” Martinez said. “A lot has to do with how they’re preparing themselves. I’m watching body language and (thinking about) who’s better suited because somebody’s going to have to get in the bullpen. Who’s better suited for the bullpen and to start every five days. But we’re going to let all three of them pitch and see who ends up winning the job at the end.”