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MLB Opening Day 2016: Nationals' rotation - Joe Ross is not an ordinary Joe

Washington Nationals' right-hander Joe Ross is working on getting a feel for his changeup back and he's also messing around with a split-finger fastball this Spring. After an impressive 2015 campaign, are bigger and better things ahead for the 22-year-old?

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Ross was called up to the majors last June after nine starts at Double-A Harrisburg following the three-team trade that brought the right-hander to the Washington Nationals' organization. Ross, who turned 22 in May, was (2-2) in the Eastern League, with a 2.81 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 12 walks (2.10 BB/9) and 54 Ks (9.47 K/9) in 51 ⅓ innings before making his MLB debut.

Before his first start for the Nationals, Nats' GM Mike Rizzo talked about the deal and what he thought Washington had in Ross, a 2011 San Diego Padres' first-round pick, who was acquired along with 2014 first-round pick Trea Turner in the deal that sent outfielder Steven Souza (and minor league left-hander Travis Ott) to Tampa Bay.

"He’s gotten better each and every start. He’s a stuff guy that throws strikes with multiple pitches and he’s prepared to take on the challenge of the big leagues at a young age." -Mike Rizzo on Joe Ross, June 2015

"He was a guy we identified in the draft, before the draft, and in his early days as a Minor League player," Rizzo said.

"Our scouts did a great job of identifying him as a pro player and we made the trade for him and sent him to Double-A again. He ended last year in Double-A, we started him there this year and he’s really pitched well for us.

"He’s gotten better each and every start. He’s a stuff guy that throws strikes with multiple pitches and he’s prepared to take on the challenge of the big leagues at a young age."

Though he returned to the minors for a time, making five starts at Triple-A in July, Ross spent most of the season in the major league rotation, finishing the year (5-5) in 16 games and 13 starts, with a 3.64 ERA, a 3.42 FIP, 21 walks (2.47 BB/9) and 69 Ks (8.10 K/9) in 76 ⅔ innings pitched, holding opposing hitters to a combined .221/.281/.355 line.

ESPN.com's Buster Olney asked Rizzo earlier this month, how, exactly, he got involved in the trade with Tampa Bay and San Diego and came away with not only the Nats' shortstop of the future, but a pitcher who figures to be part of the starting rotation come Opening Day.

"It all goes back to extremely dedicated, well-placed, professional scouting," Rizzo said, reiterating what he'd said last June.

"We did a good job of not only knowing the backgrounds of the players pre-draft and during their short professional careers.

"We had put a list of prospects together for the Padres that we wanted to attack if there was a trade possibility in place and when they showed interest in Steven Souza, who was the [organizational] Player of the Year, we made it clear that we had to have these two players in the trade or we weren't interested in moving Souza.

"So, it's a combination of the front office recognizing and getting involved [in] a three-team trade later in the process and identifying the right guys and making the right trade."

Ross, who is working on his changeup and tinkering with a splitter this Spring, is expected to slot into the fourth or fifth spot in the Nationals' rotation come Opening Day.

Ross talked to MASN's Dan Kolko on Wednesday about adding the split-finger fastball after talking to closer Jonathan Papelbon about his struggles with the change.

"We were just having a conversation and he brought up that Curt Schilling had taught him this split-finger fastball when he was with Boston," Ross explained.

"He was talking about working with me -- we were discussing my struggles with the changeup a little bit last year, and so far it's been pretty good. I didn't get a chance to throw it in my last outing, obviously, I got knocked out early, but it's been feeling really good and I think I'll be able to incorporate that throughout the season."

Ross, who left his latest start early after taking a line drive off the right heel, that luckily didn't do serious damage, told MASN's reporter he hoped the splitter could be a reliable fourth pitch along with the change, as opposed to replacing it.

"My changeup in the past was good. Over the past few seasons it's kind of fallen off a little bit, but I think if I can throw that and incorporate a split finger, it will just be more advantageous." -Joe Ross on adding splitter, working on changeup

"I'd like for it to be a fourth pitch," Ross said. "My changeup in the past was good. Over the past few seasons it's kind of fallen off a little bit, but I think if I can throw that and incorporate a split finger, it will just be more advantageous."

The change, Ross said, has fallen off a little bit because he hasn't thrown it as much.

"Relying heavily on my slider kind of took away from my changeup," he said.

"I didn't throw it as often during the games, and it's really a big feel pitch, so the less you throw it the worse it's going to get."

ESPN.com's Keith Law mentioned the right-hander's changeup while discussing the Nationals' starter as a potential next-level breakout candidate in an article this week, writing that Ross accomplished what he did last year as a two-pitch pitcher, "barely using the changeup that was his best pitching coming out of high school."

Law adds that while Ross "destroyed right-handed batters" who had a .170/.209/.252 line against him last season, he "struggled with lefties because he didn't use his changeup enough, and when he did it wasn't effective."

Left-handed hitters had a combined .275/.353/.456 line vs Ross.

A third pitch, whether it's a splitter or the change, "... should make [Ross] more effective against left-handed hitters," Law writes and potentially raise his strikeout rate as well.

As Max Scherzer told reporters, including Washington Post writer Chelsea Janes, in discussing Ross's attempts to add a "reliable" changeup to his repertoire this Spring, if he can add another weapon, "'Oh my God.'":

"You start adding that third pitch, really show feel for it, and you can pitch with it and throw it in counts when they’re anticipating fastball, it changes the game," Scherzer said. "When you can throw it to left-handed and right-handed hitters, it really changes the game."

Law and Scherzer aren't the only ones excited about the possibilities. Rizzo talked Ross up in a recent MLB Network Radio interview as well.

"Nobody mentions Joe Ross," Rizzo said, when asked about the Nationals' willingness to promote prospects or use organizational depth to fill needs at the major league level.

"He just turned 22 and he's already like an established big league starting pitcher so we've shown with Joe Ross and several others that we'll take a guy from Double-A if we think he's got all the skill set to pitch in the big leagues."

Ross hasn't given the Nationals any reason to doubt that he can be an effective back end and eventually, hopefully, middle of the rotation arm. Another pitch will make an already imposing pitcher an even scarier opponent.