These last few weeks have been trying times for baseball writers. The Hot Stove is colder than an igloo in Alaska and Scott Boras continues to dangle his prized free agents at high prices. In the nation’s capital, the Washington Nationals have essentially set their Opening Day roster — save a few possible minor additions between now and April.
One of those fringe spots that could be filled by a last-minute signing is the No. 5 starter. As of right now, the Nats appear to have the unsteady A.J. Cole and top pitching prospect Erick Fedde set to battle it out for the job in Spring Training. Fedde is mostly unproven at the major-league level, but he presents the most upside due to the raw talent that helped make him a first-round pick back in 2014.
Fedde, 24, made three starts for the Nationals last season. He allowed 16 earned runs in 15.1 innings (9.39 ERA), striking out 15 batters and walking eight. Home runs were an issue for Fedde — he allowed five — but he did show flashes of potential, as evidenced by his 8.8 K/9.
“Fedde is a guy that we think is going to be a really good mid-to-upper rotation guy in the very, very near future,” GM Mike Rizzo said on MLB Network in December. “He’s got some big-league time under his belt and I think that will help him and behoove him, but with that said, you never have enough pitching.”
While former No. 5 starter Joe Ross is due to return from Tommy John rehab in July, he’s by no means guaranteed to make it back at all this season. The Nationals may need to rely on Fedde for the entire year — especially if Cole continues to struggle —which is something that could pose a problem if his well-documented injury troubles begin to creep up again.
Four years removed from his own Tommy John surgery, Fedde has never topped 121 innings at any professional level. The Nats are known to take cautious approaches with their injured arms, which may mean he’s placed on an innings limit.
Even if Fedde is able to remain healthy, he’ll still need to take a significant step forward in what will be his rookie season. His primary pitch is his slider, which opponents hit .400 against during his short MLB stint. In the minors, he was effective against lefties (.691 OPS against in 2017) but struggled with right-handers at the plate (.752).
If Washington does decide to give Fedde a shot, it’ll be rolling the dice in hoping he’s developed enough to pitch on a contending team. Yet, the Nationals don’t need to be in any rush to sign someone to start in his place. No other team is within shouting distance of them in the NL East, giving them the luxury of trotting out an unproven No. 5 starter to start the year and see how he does.
Cole is out of options, so there’s a good chance he starts the year in the rotation over Fedde simply because it gives the Nats more flexibility. If neither player is able to hold down the job, the team could still seek out a starter through the trade market midseason. Regardless, the Nats have the luxury of being able to lose a few games early in order to assess their players.
Fedde is no sure bet to perform, but his upside will almost guarantee him at least a few starts this season. The Nats would be wise to hold off on bringing any free agent arms in just yet. Their top pitching prospect deserves a chance to prove he can provide some stability to the back end of the rotation.