You can never have too much starting pitching.
Last season, the top eight teams in rotation ERA made the postseason. The other two playoff teams — the Colorado Rockies and Minnesota Twins — lost in the Wild Card games.
Neither club’s starter was able to make it past the second inning of the die-or-die games, forcing their respective managers to turn to their next starter to get them into the later innings. Tyler Anderson and Jose Berrios gave up a combined five runs in four innings of work, effectively ending their teams’ seasons.
As vital as it is to have an ace at the top of the rotation, it’s just as important to fill out the rest of the group behind him with capable starters. Throughout their run of four division titles in the past six years, the Washington Nationals have always entered the season with their rotation figured out. Sure, there were some Spring Training battles for the No. 5 spot, but the team has never acquired a starter midseason who went on to pitch in a playoff game.
“We like our team, we specifically like our starting pitching, we like our depth,” GM Mike Rizzo said on the ESPN Baseball Tonight podcast last week.
“There are some young players behind — A.J. Cole and Erick Fedde and that group of guys — so we feel that our starting pitching is a strength.”
Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark are currently locked into the team’s rotation, leaving an opening at that No. 5 spot. Former prospect Cole was the favorite to break camp with the job until Friday, when the team handed veteran free agent Jeremy Hellickson a minor-league deal with an invite to Spring Training.
The Nationals made the signing official this weekend, and Hellickson appears to be the clear-cut choice for the job. The 30-year-old right-hander has pitched in parts of eight seasons with mixed results but has proven to be dependable after throwing at least 160 innings in five of those seasons.
In 2011, Hellickson took home the AL Rookie of the Year Award for a 2.95 ERA and 1.153 WHIP in 189 innings. His bench coach at the time was none other than now-Nationals manager Dave Martinez.
Even if Hellickson isn’t able to hold down the job for the entirety of this year — he did finish 2017 with a 5.43 ERA and career-low 5.3 K/9 — there are plenty of options for the Nats to opt for behind him. Cole allowed just nine earned runs over his last seven starts (2.70 ERA), striking out 26 hitters while walking 15. If he was able to turn a corner, the Nats might have themselves a staple for future rotations.
“I want that fifth spot and I’m going to show them everything I have to earn that spot and help them win,” Cole said on MLB Network Radio in early March. “I want to help this team win and I know I can help them win.”
Beyond Cole, the Nationals have their top pitching prospect Erick Fedde. Fedde failed to impress during his first stint at the MLB level last season, giving up more runs than innings pitched in three starts for the Nats. He did, however, post a 3.69 ERA and 1.162 WHIP in 90.1 innings between A and AA. The former first round pick will get another chance in the majors at some point in the near future, and he could be an option should the Nats need him.
If all hell breaks loose, the team could also give veterans Edwin Jackson or Tommy Milone a chance. Both pitchers signed minor-league deals this offseason, so they won’t be able to opt out of their contracts like Hellickson can if they don’t make the team early on in the season. Prospect Austin Voth remains an option as well, although he took a step back in his development in 2017 and will likely need to prove himself again before making his MLB debut.
Washington “missed out” on free agent starter Jake Arrieta but was never deeply involved in conversations with him. The team was content with its depth even without Hellickson in the fold, but now that he’s in West Palm Beach the Nationals finally have their rotation completely filled out ahead of Opening Day.
The Nationals know you can never have too much starting pitching. As good as Scherzer and Strasburg are at the front of their rotation, the team has invested a lot to ensure things will be just fine behind them.