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Washington Nationals Spring Training Storylines: A.J. Cole frontrunner for 5th spot in Nats’ 2018 rotation

There aren’t many Spring Training battles for the Washington Nationals heading into the 2018 campaign, but we’ll see what happens when things get underway. Right now, A.J. Cole looks like the frontrunner for the No. 5 slot in the rotation.

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Los Angeles Dodgers v Washington Nationals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

From the start this winter, Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo has told reporters that he is perfectly comfortable with the starting depth in the organization. With a three-time Cy Young award winner at the top of the rotation in Max Scherzer, along with righty Stephen Strasburg, who finished third in the Cy Young voting this winter, left-hander Gio Gonzalez, and Tanner Roark, the Nationals are strong 1-4, and Rizzo, back in early December, named the top contenders for the fifth spot when he was asked if he’d pursue a starter via a trade for free agency.

“We have great confidence in our in-house options,” Rizzo explained. “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.”

Cole, 26, and a 2010 Nationals’ 4th Round pick who was traded to the Oakland A’s in 2011 and reacquired in 2013, posted 3.86 ERA, a 5.19 FIP, 24 walks (4.87 BB/9), 41 Ks (8.32 K/9), and a .263/.367/.440 line against in eight starts and 44 13 IP in the Nats’ rotation in 2017.

Fedde, 24, and a 2014 Nats’ first round pick, moved between starting and relieving in the minors in 2017, then made his MLB debut as a starter, but had his season end prematurely when he suffered a flexor mass strain after posting a 9.39 ERA, 7.20 FIP, eight walks (4.70 BB/9), 15 Ks (8.80 K/9), and a .373/.459/.646 line against in 15 13 IP with the Nationals.

MLB: Game One-Colorado Rockies at Washington Nationals Michael Owens-USA TODAY Sports

Rizzo said in December that after rest and rehab, Fedde was expected to be ready for the start of Spring Training.

“We think physically he’s going to be 100%, he’s 100% right now,” Rizzo explained.

“He’s preparing for Spring Training, he’s not in rehab mode, so we feel good about where he’s at physically, and as far as developmentally, we thought that he took another step in his progress last year, and he’s a guy that we think is right on the cusp of being a very valuable commodity for us in the big leagues.”

Cole told reporters at Nationals’ WinterFest that he wanted to earn the fifth spot in the Nats’ rotation.

“I would love to do that,” Cole said. “That fifth spot right now, and then progress on. But if they need me in the pen or something like that, I’ll do that as well.”

With added weight and experience, the right-hander said he thought he was ready to take the next step after coming on strong late last season, as Rizzo mentioned.

“In the past I wasn’t throwing as hard in the big leagues,” Cole explained.

“Just having that stamina there and being able to just go after the hitters with all my stuff — a lot of my stuff was working really well, and I’ve been working on it, fine tuning it, and getting all my pitches to work and being able to throw it any time, any count.”

Rizzo was impressed enough with what he saw from Cole late last season to name him the frontrunner for the fifth spot in the rotation heading into Spring Training.

“I think A.J. Cole is the frontrunner,” Rizzo told MLB Network Radio’s Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette last week. “[Cole] has no options left and Fedde does. A.J. Cole pitched very, very well at the end of the season. You’ve got a guy with a sub-4.00 ERA and pitched down the stretch, his last eleven starts were great, and his last seven were really, really good.”

Edwin Jackson and Tommy Milone will be in Spring Training competing for spots as well, and there are still some who think the Nationals might add a starter, but heading into the 2018 campaign, it’s looking like it’s Cole’s spot to lose.

“He showed the promise that we’ve been looking for for the last couple years,” Rizzo said of the righty’s final starts last season.

“I think that he’s probably the favorite right now going into it,” the GM added, “but we’ve got a good competition and we’re going to see how it plays out.”