The Nationals boast one of the best rotations in baseball, thanks in large part to the strengths of the four starters.
But there’s no turning the clock back to 1975 when four-man rotations were the rule, meaning somehow this team is going to need 30 or so starts from somebody.
It’s a thankless job, because while it’s difficult to make the playoffs without a reliable fifth starter most teams trim their rotations to four in the playoffs due to the off-days.
And by definition the fifth starter isn’t necessarily going to be awesome; otherwise they’d be the fourth starter.
Teams go about finding number five in one of two ways nowadays: they sign a veteran (sometimes off of the scrap heap) like the Nats did with Jeremy Hellickson in 2018 or go with prospects who might be a little green like last summer when Erick Fedde (12 starts), Joe Ross (nine starts) and Austin Voth (eight starts) split the role.
That’s the trio that will be under Manager Davey Martinez’s microscope over the next month.
“Joe — two years removed from surgery, he’s completely healthy — he looks really good. Fedde, I watched throw today, threw the ball really well and Voth also threw the ball well,” Martinez said. “When we break camp one of them is going to be the fifth starter.”
Joe Ross has been in this role before.
The 26-year old made 23 starts for the Nats in 2016 and was the beneficiary of ridiculous run support (the team averaged 9.15 runs in his 13 starts) the following season before suffering a torn elbow ligament.
After Tommy John Surgery, Ross returned to make three appearances in 2018. He then split time with the Nats and AAA Fresno in 2019, and made three appearances in the postseason (0-1 with a 7.45 ERA over 9.2 innings).
Austin Voth went 3-3 with a 3.30 ERA over eight starts (four in September) and nine appearances before shoulder tendinitis kept him off of the World Series Roster (he was active for the NLDS and NLCS but didn’t make an appearance).
The University of Washington product and former fifth round pick is healthy and ready for the audition.
“Honestly it’s just going to come down who pitches the best in Spring Training,” Voth said. “I know there’s a lot of other things that go into that, but for me I’m just focusing on what I can do put myself good position to make the ballclub.”
Erick Fedde made 12 starts and 21 major league appearances in 2019, posting an ERA of 4.50 which was a slight improvement over his 2018 (5.54 over 11 starts).
The former first round pick does have one more year of options; in a rule that smacks of Faber University’s “Double Secret Probation” if a player uses up all three years of options before his fifth professional year, he gets a fourth year of options.
What is Davey looking for from Fedde?
“Consistency. Strike one. Finishing hitters. He had hitters last year 0-2, took him three or four pitches to finish hitter,” Martinez said. “Look at Max and Stras, and they try to finish hitters on four pitches all the time. I’d like to see him do that.”
The fact that Fedde has another potential year of minor league flexibility while Voth and Ross do not could color the competition in March. But the 27-year old is focused on what he can control.
“I just finished up my first live BP,” Fedde said Thursday. “It’s good to see some hitters in there. You really find out what your stuff looks like when you see some swings. That’s a really good starting spot. Things are feeling great- I’m excited and ready to compete for a spot.”
The competition begins this weekend with the first of 31 games before they leave Florida.
“I want them to go out there and just keep building of what they did last year,” Martinez said. “They’ve all showed that they can pitch in the big leagues; just go out there and pitch with confidence, relax and just do your thing.”