The folks in our nation’s capital are all too familiar with shutdowns. No, we’re not talking about the [political content redacted], but rather how the Washington Nationals handle their pitchers after their returns from Tommy John surgery.
In August 2009, the Nats announced that prized young right-hander Jordan Zimmermann would need to go under the knife after experiencing “tightness” in his elbow. He returned in 2010 to make seven starts, then proceeded to toss 161.1 innings the next year until Washington put an end to his season in late August.
Stephen Strasburg underwent the reconstructive elbow procedure Sept. 4, 2010. He made five starts for the Nats in 2011 before throwing 160 innings the following season and becoming the subject of media scrutiny when he was shut down in early September.
The Nats were forced to start the process over again when Joe Ross had Tommy John surgery July 19, 2017. Ross came back last season to make three starts and figures to be in the club’s plans for the starting rotation in 2019.
“He’s going to come to Spring Training with a chance to be a starting pitcher for us,” Rizzo told reporters at the Winter Meetings in early December. “Hopefully he fully recovers from the Tommy John, and we expect him to, and we liked what we saw in stretches last year, and just continue his improvement with his health and his stamina and that type of thing, and this guy was a pretty dynamic starter when we first got him and hopefully he gets back to pre-Tommy John status as a pitcher and we’ll be happy with that.”
If Washington has learned anything about handling Tommy John recipients, it’s that a shutdown won’t go over well if the Nats are in contention. Strasburg certainly has a higher profile than the likes of Zimmermann or Ross, but there’s a reason no one made a fuss when the Nats shut down Zimmermann with a month to go in 2011: They were 62-70 and 22.5 games back of the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East when he made his last start.
Heading into 2019, the Nats can’t afford to finish off the season without Ross available. Of the eight starting pitchers currently on their 40-man roster, five underwent Tommy John at some point in their careers, two have combined for three major-league starts between them and the other is Max Scherzer.
The Nats could give Ross the Jeremy Hellickson treatment, pulling him after 70-80 pitches and not allowing him to face opposing lineups a third time. Hellickson ended the year with 91.1 innings across 19 starts and was productive with a 3.45 ERA. However, he faced high-leverage situations just 13.2 percent of the time and made two lengthy trips to the disabled list.
Gambling on the bullpen to pick up the slack in Ross’ starts would be a risky business, especially considering the fact that the Nationals’ relievers ranked among the bottom half of the league in ERA last season and primary set-up man Trevor Rosenthal is coming off a Tommy John surgery of his own. If any of the Nats’ top four starters were to get hurt, the bullpen would need to pick up even more of the slack on top of the added work in Ross’s starts.
There are two places where the Nats could put Ross to minimize the risk of hurting the major-league ballclub: the bullpen and Triple-A. Ross has never made an appearance as a reliever at the MLB level, but his limited pitch repertoire could lend itself to fitting the mold.
Over the first three years of his career, Ross threw just two pitches more than 10 percent of the time. He relied heavily on his sinker (52.1%) and slider (36.3%) but didn’t have a refined third pitch. Most starters typically have a three-pitch repertoire, although there are plenty who have succeeded without one.
In his three 2018 starts, however, Ross mixed things up a lot more. Albeit in a small sample size, the right-hander threw each of his four-seamer, sinker, change-up and slider at least 21 percent of the time. His slider (.167 batting average against) and sinker (.238 BAA) remained effective while his change-up and fastball were pretty hittable.
“I’ve got a lot of stuff to work on,” Ross said after his final start of the season. “Work on the slider, obviously it hasn’t really been there for me, command and everything. Just honestly getting the stamina up so I can go deeper into the game, but I mean, for now, just happy that I feel healthy and feel strong, but I’ve kind of just got to take it one step at a time.”
It’s not clear whether Ross was just testing out each of his pitches while he had the chance to take in some live action or it’s a sign of things to come, but it’s clear that either way his third and fourth pitches still need work. By transitioning to the bullpen, Ross could afford the luxury of practicing with those pitches against MLB competition without having to worry about an innings limit.
The Nationals could also opt to send Ross down to the minors to keep him stretched out as a starter and skip a few starts every so often to limit the number of innings on his arm. He would be facing inferior hitters but considering the fact that he hasn’t had a season with a sub-4.00 ERA since 2016, that might not be the worst thing for him.
With Ross out of the rotation, the question then becomes who takes his spot as the team’s No. 5 starter. It’s likely that the team would open up a Spring Training competition between Erick Fedde, Austin Voth, Kyle McGowin and minor-league signee Henderson Alvarez to determine the man for the job. Washington could also sign a fifth starter in free agency, with names such as Wade Miley, Drew Pomeranz and Derek Holland likely available at a cheaper price.
Regardless, the Nationals could always plan to move Ross back into the rotation later in the year. At that point, he would actually be a relatively fresh arm that could help keep the team afloat while an injury-prone starter such as Strasburg or Patrick Corbin works their way back from the disabled list.
The Nats enter 2019 with one of the best groups of starting pitchers in the majors, but depth can quickly become an issue if a few of those big names can’t stay on the field.
Saving Ross’s arm for the second half of the season would be an insurance option the Nats can’t afford to give up.