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Washington Nationals: Joe Ross has the potential to be an elite reliever

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The Washington Nationals’ No. 5 starter has struggled mightily this season, but his repertoire fits the mold of a lethal bullpen arm.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Things haven’t gone according to plan so far this year for Washington Nationals’ righty Joe Ross.

After posting a 7.47 ERA to go with a career-high 2.9 HR/9 in three starts, Ross was sent down to AAA-Syracuse to work on his mechanics against a lower tier of hitters.

With only one season in which he’s thrown over 100 innings at the major league level, and platoon splits that are eye-opening (righties: .203 BAA, lefties: .301), Ross could potentially be more suited for a bullpen role.

In an interview with 106.7 the FAN on D.C.’s Sports Junkies last week, general manager Mike Rizzo offered a vote of confidence in the young right-hander.

“We love the kid’s makeup, demeanor, his stuff is great, he’s a big, physical guy and we’re expecting big things from him … we feel good about where he’s going to be at when he comes back and I think when he comes back he’ll be effective for us.”

Ross relies heavily on two pitches: a slider that serves as his go-to strikeout pitch and sinker that tops out at 96 and has been effective at producing ground balls.

The MASN TV broadcasts often highlight the differences between the Ross against the lineup the first time around and the Ross against those same hitters the rest of the game.

According to the data at Brooks Baseball, Ross’s biggest struggles in that department are with the sinker, as opponents hit .436 and .317 the second and third times around off that pitch in his career.

In an interview with MASN, Rizzo stated that the Nats aren’t considering Ross for a bullpen spot.

“We think he’s too valuable as a starter — his stuff is too good. He’s a proven starter and starting pitching is extremely important for our organization and everybody else, so we consider him a starter."

Rizzo’s conclusion after looking through the film is that Ross’s biggest issue is the height of his arm where he releases the ball.

“We saw that his arm slot is down about four to six inches in his delivery and for sinker ball pitchers that is important — to get on top of the baseball -- to throw downhill and to sink it.”

While mechanics have undoubtedly played a major role in his struggles this season, Ross would benefit from making the switch to a relief role.

His sinker has averaged just 92 mph this season, raising the question as to whether an uptick in velocity could serve him well.

If Ross moved to the bullpen, he would be able to throw harder, face righties more often and only see hitters once a game.

The Nationals have a desperate need for a reprieve for their relief corps after stumbling to a 5.31 bullpen ERA out of the gate.

Joe Blanton and Sammy Solis are on the disabled list while Shawn Kelley and Blake Treinen have been shells of their former selves.

While one can expect some of these pitchers to get healthy or return to form, it probably isn’t realistic to expect that out of all of them.

Jacob Turner and A.J. Cole have been as effective as No. 5 starters can be expected to be, and with the talent that fills out the rest of the rotation the Nats don’t need Ross to take the mound every fifth day.

What they do need is someone to get the Nats through the late innings without squandering lead after lead.

Joe Ross has the potential to fill that role, and the Nationals would benefit from giving him a chance.