Would you believe we’ve reached the final countdown to spring training? That’s right, pitchers and catchers are holding their first official workout in West Palm Beach, Fla., in five days. So it’s time to count down the Nationals’ top storylines of the spring. We begin today with a familiar battle for the No. 5 starter’s job ...
So much about this spring will be different for the Nationals, from the new faces in uniform to the new protocols in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But rest assured there’s still one preeminent storyline that at this point any fan can recite with eyes closed.
The Nats need to pick a No. 5 starter. The candidates are Joe Ross, Austin Voth and Erick Fedde. You’re not experiencing déjà vu. You’ve actually experienced this exact same scenario before. Very little about it has changed.
Well, that’s not entirely true. The three competitors’ respective statuses are entirely familiar entering this spring, as they were before. One year ago, Ross was a modest frontrunner for the job based on his late-2019 performance, but Voth had been a pleasant surprise as well, while Fedde was the former first-round pick who had yet to pitch like it.
But this time around, Ross is trying to prove he’s still the man for the job after opting out of the 2020 season. Voth is trying to prove he’s not the guy who labored through most of last year. And Fedde is trying to prove that he did take legitimate strides last season and shouldn’t be excluded from the competition strictly because he still has a minor league option left.
Ross, to be clear, is again the frontrunner as camp opens. The 27-year-old may not have pitched in 2020, but he remains the organizational favorite, based on his showing late in 2019. Had the 2020 season begun on time, he almost certainly would’ve had the job.
But it’s impossible to know what effect the year off had on the right-hander. Will Ross, who has battled injuries through much of his career, return with an extra-fresh arm? Or did the time off leave him rusty?
“I guess ‘rust’ is the word you could use,” he said in December. “It’ll be different with this extended time off. But I think at the same time it kind of gave my arm a break, and maybe I can use that to my advantage in the long run.”
Because he’s out of options and can’t be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers, Ross figures to be a lock to make the opening day roster. If he’s not in the rotation, he could serve as a long man in the bullpen. But can the same be said about Voth?
The Nationals can’t demote Voth without risk of losing him, but based on the way he pitched in 2020, there may not be many takers lining up to claim him. The 28-year-old posted a ghastly 6.34 ERA and 1.510 WHIP in 11 starts, and that’s with a couple of quality September outings included.
The club kept trotting Voth out there every fifth day, so somebody sees something in him. And manager Davey Martinez repeatedly talked him up throughout his struggles, perhaps helping instill a bit of confidence in his failing pitcher before season’s end.
But make no mistake, Voth is going to have to show something this spring. He won’t make the roster on reputation, especially if Fedde pitches well and forces the issue.
Despite having been drafted seven years ago, Fedde still, remarkably, has one option year remaining to his name. (It’s a convoluted explanation, but you’ll just have to trust us on this one.) So that fact seemingly makes him the odd man out before camp even opens.
But of the three competitors, Fedde is the only one who actually pitched with any semblance of success in 2020. He gave up two or fewer earned runs in four of his eight starts, and tossed 5 1/3 scoreless innings in emergency relief of Stephen Strasburg. He held opponents to a .241 batting average.
Fedde emerged from the season sounding more confident in himself than he had in a while. Perhaps he was signaling he’s finally ready, on the verge of his 28th birthday, to be the pitcher the Nats felt they were getting when they used a first-round pick on him in 2014.
As always, we’ll get a sense of Martinez’s plan early in the spring. Who from the group makes Grapefruit League starts? Who is forced to pitch in relief or on a back field?
Eventually, though, the Nationals will need to make their decision. They’ve had years to pick one of these guys to be a long-term member of their rotation. Are they finally ready to do it for good?