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Washington Nationals’ Spring Training Storylines: Who will claim the Nats’ fifth starter spot?

With the start of Spring Training fast approaching, we look at the big questions facing the Nationals this winter again to get everyone up to date on what’s going on in Washington...

MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and... ? That’s just one of the big questions for the Washington Nationals heading into Spring Training. Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo talked earlier this winter about the starting depth in the organization after the top four and another two starters who will likely get the chance to earn a spot in the big league rotation in 2018.

“We have great confidence in our in-house options,” Rizzo told reporters at the Winter Meetings in early December.

“A.J. Cole threw the ball extremely well his last seven starts last year. His stuff was good, it up-ticked at the end of the season, and of course we love [Erick] Fedde. He’ll be healthy and have some major league time under his belt, so we feel good about where we’re at. So what we’ll be looking for is depth, just because it’s a very long season and very few seasons you go through with five starters.”

The Nationals had eleven different starters take the mound last season for example.

In mid-December, Rizzo was asked about the organizational depth and who he was and fans should keep an eye on that might be behind the top six or seven candidates for a starting spot.

Washington Nationals vs. Chicago Cubs Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

“We’ve got the new young stable of guys, the [Wil] Crowes and the [Seth] Romeros and that type of thing behind the Coles and the Feddes,” Rizzo explained, referring to two of the pitchers the Nationals drafted last June.

“We feel good about our depth,” he added. “It’s strong, and on the big league side we’ve got three guys locked up long-term, we’ve got Gio for this year, and so we’re four strong this year, and our two young kids, and we feel good about both of those guys.”

Since then, Rizzo and Co. in the front office in Washington have added Edwin Jackson, who made 13 starts for the Nationals in 2017, and former Nationals’ prospect Tommy Milone to the mix on Minor League deals.

Will the Nationals sign one of the big free agents remaining on the market like Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb or Jake Arrieta, or trade for a starter? Will they be willing to add to the 2018 payroll to do so?

Washington Post writer Jorge Castillo noted yesterday, in an article on the rumored interest in Miami Marlins’ catcher J.T. Realmuto, that the, “... Nationals’ projected payroll is already roughly $3 million over the competitive balance tax threshold of $197 million.”

“Every dollar spent over that $197 million mark comes with a 30 percent tax, which is the penalty for exceeding the CBT for a second straight season.”

Since all the free agent starters mentioned above received (and turned down) qualifying offers, the Nationals, who as the WaPost writer noted, went over the competitive tax balance threshold last season, would, as MLB Trade Rumors noted, forfeit their “ ... second-highest and fifth-highest pick in the 2018 draft,” and lose $1M in International Signing Bonus pool money as well if they were to sign one of them.

When the regular season starts, who do you think will be the fifth starter?

Cole is, currently, considered the front runner, with no options remaining, and Fedde, the top pitching prospect in the organization, coming off injury and still developing.

Will E-Jax earn another opportunity? Will Milone, 30, who made 17 appearances (eight of them starts) for the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets last season, fight his way into the Nationals’ rotation?

Will Rizzo add arms to the mix on the minor league side? Will he sign a free agent to strengthen a strength as he’s done before? Would a trade for a No. 5 (or a No. 3-type who’d push Gonzalez and Roark back) make sense? What’s your best guess as to what the Nationals do before the regular season starts? Will they wait and see what they need once things get underway? What will Rizzo do?