The Washington Nationals were looking at a competition for the fifth starter job in their rotation that, quite frankly, wasn’t too appealing.
A.J. Cole spent years as a pitching prospect before finally graduating from prospect status last season. But while Cole put up respectable results when the Nats called on him last year, his 3.81 ERA wasn’t quite in line with his peripherals, and he didn’t do well at all during the bulk of his season in Triple-A. Publicly, general manager Mike Rizzo has been high on Cole, describing him before spring training as the team’s fifth starter — though he backed off on that characterization just a little earlier this month:
“We’re going to run the best five starters we can out there, and if A.J. is that guy, he’ll be out there,” Rizzo said. “If he’s not, he’ll compete for a bullpen spot. I think that he may have the leg up, just because of the way he pitched last year down the stretch. He was a really good starting pitcher for us, and he’s a guy that we drafted, developed, signed, traded away, got him back and we think that his best days are ahead of him.”
Flash forward to St. Patrick’s Day weekend, with starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson making his arrival at major league spring training camp. Hellickson, a client of super-agent Scott Boras, was signed to a minor league deal that does not guarantee him a roster spot. He could debut later this week.
Hellickson cannonballs into a roster battle that was shaping up to be a two-way fight between Cole, who is out of options and a bit behind the rest of the Nats’ pitchers because of a stomach bug last weekend, and top prospect Erick Fedde, who does have options and has looked sharp this spring, albeit mostly pitching in long relief.
We heard this from The Washington Post‘s beat writer Chelsea Janes earlier this month:
Multiple scouts who have seen Cole this season said they would consider right-hander Erick Fedde, another former first-round pick, even or ahead of him for that fifth starter’s job. […] One scout who saw Fedde through last season said he’s seen the better version of Fedde return this spring.
Even still, as of Friday morning, reports were describing Cole as the odds-on favorite. MLB.com’s Jamal Collier went so far as to write in his report on Friday’s game that Cole would “almost certainly be the team’s fifth starter”. Hours later, news broke from ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick that the Nats had a minor league deal with Hellickson. Almost immediately, the tune changed:
No firm assurances to Hellickson that he’ll be the #Nats No. 5 starter, but can’t imagine he’d sign with them without being led to believe it’s close to a sure thing.
— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) March 16, 2018
So the Nationals get their Scott Boras-repped starter after all. If Hellickson makes the rotation, four of the five Nationals starters (Scherzer, Stras, Gio, Hellickson) will be Boras clients.
— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) March 16, 2018
The big question, as Janes, Collier, and the rest of the beat writers were quick to note, is how ready Hellickson is to start after missing more than half of spring camp. After all, Opening Day is just under two weeks away.
The first hint of an answer came from Hellickson’s hometown newspaper, the Des Moines Register: Hellickson had been working out at “a special spring training for [Boras] clients who didn’t have contracts”. As we learned this morning, Hellickson appears to be in good shape and ready to go. Collier reported:
Then, shortly after the Nationals officially announced he had signed a Minor League deal with an invite to Major League Spring Training, Hellickson threw a version of a simulated game in the bullpen. He threw four innings and about 60 pitches to complete his first workout with the team and remain on the same schedule he had been during the offseason. Hellickson had been throwing on his normal once-every-five-day schedule in California at a camp set up by his agent, Scott Boras, to keep players who remain unsigned in shape. He has even faced opposing hitters. Because of this regular work, Hellickson does not feel like he will have to catch up too much to match the rest of the pitchers.
When will we see Hellickson don the curly W and get into a Grapefruit League game? Collier said manager Davey Martinez suggested that could happen in one of Friday’s scheduled split-squad games, with Hellickson throwing another bullpen session between now and then to continue building up his stamina and give Nats coaches a better look at him.
Martinez is familiar with Hellickson. He was the Tampa Bay Rays’ bench coach when Hellickson won the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year Award. Hellickson later went to the Arizona Diamondbacks, which once employed Rizzo, so the GM may have heard some inside baseball on him from some former cohorts and contacts there.
So, Hellickson has this thing wrapped up, right? Maybe not.
The starter dilemma
Some in the Nats fan community have long clamored for Cole, 26, to get a shot. Rizzo has always spoken highly of him, and he’s backed up those words with action. After trading him to the Oakland Athletics as part of the deal that brought starter Gio Gonzalez to Washington in December 2011, Rizzo re-acquired Cole in a three-team deal thirteen months later. It was Cole, not better-performing fellow top pitching prospect Austin Voth, whom Rizzo brought up to the majors when he needed a few starts down the stretch in 2016. And it was Cole who settled into a swingman role for the Nats late in the 2017 season once more, putting up a fine 3.81 ERA and going 3–5 in pitching decisions.
However, Cole also recorded some more worrisome numbers, like a 1.50 WHIP, 1.63 K/BB, and 5.20 FIP, over those 52 major league innings. And a larger sample size was provided by his time at Triple-A Syracuse, where he slumped to a 5.88 ERA in 93⅓ innings pitched. Throughout the winter, the Nats were frequently mentioned in connection with top free agent pitchers, especially Jake Arrieta, whose representatives Rizzo admitted the Nats had been in touch with before he signed with the division-rival Philadelphia Phillies last week.
Then there’s the 25-year-old Fedde. He was left as the Nats’ top pitching prospect, and their only young pitcher of note in the high minors save for Cole and Voth (who declined precipitously last season and was cut early this spring), after Rizzo shipped Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez to the Chicago White Sox for Adam Eaton in December 2016. But an experiment last year in which the Nats attempted to convert him into a reliever, reacting to a disastrous bullpen situation that was ultimately solved with the acquisition of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler at the trade deadline, backfired somewhat. Rizzo admitted as much in an interview this week.
All told, Fedde pitched to a 3.69 ERA across Double-A and Triple-A in 2017, contributing 90⅓ innings. He started three games for Washington, pitching 15⅓ more innings at the major league level and recording a ghastly 9.39 ERA. The less said about his 2.15 WHIP and 1.88 K/BB over that small sample size, the better.
And what about Hellickson? The veteran, who turns 31 next month, accepted a qualifying offer after putting up strong overall numbers for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2016: 3.71 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 3.42 K/BB. But his effectiveness dropped markedly in 2017. The Phillies traded him to the Baltimore Orioles after he gave them 112⅓ innings of 4.73 ERA ball. Hellickson never quite took to Baltimore, scuffling to a 6.97 ERA over 51⅔ more innings. On the year, he made 30 starts and went 8–11 in pitching decisions. His WHIP wasn’t actually that bad at 1.26 WHIP, so you can figure out pretty easily where much of his damage came from: home runs, which he gave up at a 1.9 HR/9 clip. His walk rate only rose by a few tenths of a point, but his strikeout rate dropped by a full two per nine innings, leading to a far more pedestrian 2.04 K/BB.
In short, Hellickson was not good in 2017. Still, it’s something of a surprise to see him settle for a minor league deal, considering he’s just 30 and is a career 4.12 ERA, 1.25 WHIP pitcher — not a world-beater, but probably more of a third or fourth starter than a fifth starter on most staffs, especially considering he’s spent the last two years with hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park and Oriole Park at Camden Yards as his home fields.
Back to the present day. Cole started Sunday, but that was his first game appearance in more than a week. Fedde doesn’t have a rotation spot this spring, although he’s started twice and pitched in long relief. Spring stats to date (always take these with a grain of salt due to small sample sizes and a wider-than-usual delta between hitters in terms of experience and quality):
Fedde: 2.84 ERA, 12⅔ IP, 1.50 WHIP, 2.50 K/BB
Cole: 4.00 ERA, 9 IP, 1.22 WHIP, 6.50 K/BB
Cole improved his numbers with that four-inning start Sunday at Roger Dean Stadium, despite taking the hard-luck loss. He’s still not fully ramped up, but he had a good outing despite falling behind some batters and giving up a long home run. As Janes tweeted:
Cole is done after allowing one run on two hits in four strong innings. Walked a batter, struck out six against the Cardinals regulars. Needed a big showing today. Provided it.
— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) March 18, 2018
Let’s revisit those historical numbers for a moment, because they back up the idea that Cole and Hellickson are the main competitors here.
Cole pitched 145⅓ innings last year, while Fedde pitched 105⅔ innings. Cole’s total might be enough basis to suggest he might be good for 170-180 innings (toward the low end of a full season’s worth for a major league starting pitcher) in 2018. But Fedde’s total likely means the Nats will have to manage his innings in the second half, as historically, they have adhered to a strategy of ramping up their young starters over the course of several seasons. Hellickson? 164 innings. His career high is 193, which he reached in 2011. He threw 189 innings in 2016. That’s just fine. The Nats should have no concerns about his ability to pitch through a full season and then in the playoffs if needed.
The Nats won’t have to make a decision on Hellickson immediately, it appears. If it does take him some time to ramp up, they can stash him at Triple-A or in extended spring training, although not indefinitely:
jeremy hellickson: 2M in majors, 4M incentives, several outs (beginning may 1 and every 15 days thereafter) #nats
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) March 18, 2018
As for Fedde and Cole, nothing has changed: Fedde may have pitched more than twice as many innings and faced more than twice as many batters as Cole, and scouts may think his stuff looks better, but Fedde has options and Cole has none. The Nats, who were once rich in starting pitching depth but are thin at the moment, were always likely to send Fedde to the minors to start the year and call on him when needed. The Hellickson signing only makes that likelier.
That leads us to…
The bullpen dilemma
Cole still has a decent shot to win the fifth starter job. RosterResource.com still projects him in the Opening Day rotation. He certainly helped himself at least a little bit against the St. Louis Cardinals.
But if Hellickson really is close to ready (the first day the Nats will need a fifth starter is April 4) and the Nats decide they don’t need to keep him down until May, the Nats will have to make a decision about Cole: place him on waivers, or move him into the bullpen. Bet on the latter.
Here’s something interesting about Cole — over almost 100 innings at the major league level across the past three seasons, his splits tell us he’s actually been more effective in relief than he has as a starter. In 84⅔ innings as a starter in the majors, he owns a 4.78 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, and .275/.821 slash line against. His reliever sample size is a lot smaller at 15 innings, but he’s managed a 3.00 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and .204/.616 slash line against in that role. Put more bluntly, he’s been bad as a starter and good as a reliever.
Cole will be stretched out coming out of spring training, so he will theoretically be able to step into a rotation role if the Nats want or need him to do so. If moved to the bullpen, he would likely slot in as the team’s long reliever, a job that appeared ticketed for left-hander Matt Grace prior to the Hellickson signing.
That puts the Nats in a little bit of a jam.
Management was already facing some decisions about their bullpen composition, but they were deciding between players who are on the 40-man roster and cannot be optioned (Grace, Enny Romero, and Joaquin Benoit) to the minors and players who either aren’t on the roster (Tim Collins, Chris Smith) or are but can be optioned (Trevor Gott, Sammy Solis). Now, they may well have to add Cole into the mix. And as stated above, Cole cannot be optioned, meaning the Nats would have to designate him for assignment (or place him on the disabled list) to take him off the Opening Day roster.
Benoit was a surprise addition to the Nats a few days into spring camp. The timing of his signing to a $1 million one-year deal coincided closely with the news that young right-hander Koda Glover, who lost most of his 2017 season to rotator cuff inflammation in his pitching shoulder, is experiencing the same injury. Glover will almost certainly begin the year on the disabled list. Will Benoit begin the year on the Opening Day roster? It looked a lot likelier before the Nats signed Hellickson.
More spring stats (same caveat as before applies):
Benoit: 9.00 ERA, 3 IP, 2.00 WHIP, 3.00 K/BB
Grace: 3.00 ERA, 9 IP, 1.67 WHIP, 3.00 K/BB
Romero: 10.50 ERA, 6 IP, 2.67 WHIP, 0.60 K/BB
Collins: 3.68 ERA, 7⅓ IP, 1.09 WHIP, 3.67 K/BB
Smith: 1.35 ERA, 6⅔ IP, 0.45 WHIP, 2.00 K/BB
Gott: 0.00 ERA, 8 IP, 0.88 WHIP, 3.50 K/BB
Solis: 2.57 ERA, 7 IP, 0.86 WHIP, 15.00 K/BB
Sure is nice to be out of options, right? Unless they can opt out at the end of spring training (and neither is an established major league pitcher at this point), Collins and Smith will likely be assigned to Triple-A Syracuse to open the season, and they’ll likely be joined by Gott and Solis, who can be optioned for one more year. There’s something to be said for taking the best 25 players north, sure, but the Nats also know that they need as much pitching depth as they can get.
The Nats could simply tack Cole onto their projected bullpen and make it an eight-man unit, at least until second baseman Daniel Murphy (rehabbing from major knee surgery in October) is ready to join the team. They could also keep Hellickson down for a few weeks, and then either move Cole into the bullpen or grant Hellickson his release once May 1 rolls around. But at some point, they will have to make a decision about who is in and who is out.
Benoit is at the end of his career and has looked very flat in his only three appearances of the spring, after taking a bit longer to get going due to his late start to camp. Romero was a bullpen fixture last year who never seemed to have former manager Dusty Baker‘s full trust and who has been easily the worst performer among Nats pitchers this spring. Meanwhile, Collins has flashed upper-90s with his fastball while showing off a nasty hammer curveball — as have, for that matter, Solis and Gott. Smith has been quietly effective as well, flying somewhat under the radar after joining the team on a minor league deal over the winter. Grace has been generally steady but unspectacular, characteristics that have defined him throughout the career. (Solis, Smith, and Grace are 29. Gott is 25. Romero is 27. Collins is 28. Benoit is 40.)
The two major questions here are: How willing are the Nats to cut Benoit loose a month after guaranteeing him $1 million for the season? and How concerned are the Nats about losing someone like Collins, whom they invested in rehabbing from Tommy John surgery last season? Those questions were relevant before Hellickson signed with the Nats, and they are even more so now.
What’s the conclusion?
One thing is for sure: We’ll all be a lot smarter a week from now. Hellickson has yet to face Grapefruit League hitting, and he’s got some big questions to answer coming off a dismal season. Cole answered the challenge with some authority Sunday, but he’s still coming from behind at a time when most Nats starters are going five innings. As for the bullpen puzzle, there’s plenty that is up to change — Wander Suero looked like a legitimate contender until he injured his oblique in a game, and Austin L. Adams appeared to be a real candidate before walking four batters in a row without retiring one last week.
The Nats have the pieces of a pitching staff. It will be interesting to see how they stitch them all together in the end.