For a team that rose to contention behind the strength of its pitching staff, the Nationals have never been afraid to leave the back end of their rotation up to chance.
It started with John Lannan vs. Ross Detwiler in 2012. Then Tanner Roark edged out Taylor Jordan for the fifth spot in 2014. AJ Cole and Erick Fedde battled it out for the fifth spot in 2018 before Jeremy Hellickson leapfrogged them both two weeks into the season.
This year, three familiar faces will be in the mix for that coveted No. 5 spot: Fedde, Austin Voth and Joe Ross. All three pitched in hybrid spot-starter/long-relief roles while jumping back and forth between the minors and major leagues. Each had their struggles but also showed flashes of what their potential could be.
"It was a year where I got to do a lot in the sense of starting and relieving," Fedde said at the Nationals' annual WinterFest event last weekend. "Kind of just been the same old role of whatever I can do to help this team. It's a benefit to be on a winning team where they just try to fit you in wherever you can help. Just trying to taking things one step at a time this year."
Fedde started his career higher on prospect rankings than his fellow competitors did, but he's mostly failed to deliver on that promise in three years since breaking into the majors. In 2019, his up-and-down performances continued, with four quality starts mixed in with three outings in which he allowed 5+ runs.
But the biggest hurdle to Fedde making the Opening Day squad might be his rare fourth option. Both Ross and Voth are out of options heading into 2020, meaning the Nationals must place them on waivers if they don't make the active roster out of Spring Training. Fedde, despite being optioned in three separate seasons, accumulated a fourth option due to his lack of service time at the major-league level.
So that puts the spotlight on Voth and Fedde. With the addition of the 26th man to the active roster this year, the Nationals have already said they'll be expanding their bullpen to eight pitchers. That means the loser of the fifth-starter competition likely gets relegated to a relief role.
"I've done both before," Voth said at WinterFest. "Obviously, I'm used to starting more often but if I was a reliever as well, long-relief guy, I'd be fine with that. Just want to have a role on this team and be a part of this team."
Based on last season's results alone, Voth would appear to be the frontrunner heading into the spring. The former fifth-round pick posted a respectable 3.30 ERA and 9.1 K/9 over nine appearances (eight starts) in what qualified as his rookie season. A shoulder issue prevented him from making the World Series roster, but he insists he's healthy heading into this year.
Voth's injury paved the way for Ross to make the World Series roster and thus fill in for Max Scherzer in Game 5 after the ace was scratched with a neck spasms. He pitched admirably for being given the ball on both short notice and short rest. Overall, Ross' 2019 numbers weren't stellar, but he was also in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.
Both pitchers will enter Spring Training looking to showcase improvements they've made over the offseason. For Voth, he wants to improve the effectiveness of his sliders against righties, working to increase its depth and add more velocity to better differentiate it from his curveball. For Ross, he will look to show that he's fully healthy and capable of returning to his 2016 form when he made 19 starts and accrued a 3.43 ERA.
Fedde shouldn't be counted out, but he'll have to have a lights-out start to Spring Training in order to garner serious consideration. The Nationals probably have more roster questions entering this season than they've had in a long time, but the fifth-starter competition is a game they've certainly played before.
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