Hellickson has 'upper hand' to be 5th starter

February 15th, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Since the end of last season, hoped he would have a chance to return to the Nationals. He finally felt comfortable with his teammates, developed a rapport with the coaching and training staff and enjoyed being a part of a team with postseason aspirations. Plus, Washington was his fourth team in the past four years, so he wanted some stability.
After lingering on the free-agent market deep into the offseason for a second straight year, Hellickson finally got his deal earlier this month, a one-year, $1.3 million commitment from the Nationals with up to $4 million in incentives. And although the Nationals have touted the No. 5 spot in their rotation as an "open competition" between Hellickson, , and , manager Dave Martinez acknowledged Friday that Hellickson has the "upper hand."
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It's a job Hellickson believes he has earned after he pitched well in the role for the Nats a year ago, when he made 19 starts and posted a 3.45 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP, and the righty communicated as much during negotiations with general manager Mike Rizzo.
"The big thing for me was I didn't want to come into camp and have to compete for a job again," Hellickson said. "I felt like I proved myself enough last year where I didn't have to do that. That was part of the dialogue when we were talking. That's kind of where we left it. I haven't really heard much after that."
The job appears to be Hellickson's at the start of camp, although the Nationals will give the rest of the pitchers on the roster a chance to win it from him. However, each of the other pitchers in camp competing for the job carry some measure of concern.
Martinez was impressed by Alvarez's first bullpen session on Friday, but he has not pitched in the Majors since 2017 and has not thrown a full season since 2014. Ross returned from Tommy John surgery a year ago, but he made just three starts and tossed 16 innings in September, making the Nats wary of taxing his arm with too many innings. Fedde has also had trouble remaining on the mound and has been limited to flashes of brilliance during his brief stint in Washington.
If neither Ross nor Fedde can claim the job from Hellickson this spring, they are both almost certainly ticketed for Triple-A Fresno.
"I'd rather see them go down in Triple-A and get some innings in," Martinez said. "Build up some innings, get some confidence going and then when we need them they're ready, they're available. That's not to say we won't do something different, but I would rather see them go down there and get their starts in, build their innings up."
Hellickson does not come free of concern either. He pitched well for the Nats last season, but he was routinely prevented from facing hitters a third time through the lineup. He completed 91 1/3 in 19 starts, an average of less than five innings per start, and pitched into the seventh inning only once. The Nats limited him to just 43 at-bats facing a hitter for a third time in a game, and he surrendered three home runs and a 1.221 OPS in those situations.
But Hellickson believes he can pitch deeper into games and plans to spend the spring trying to prove it.
"I don't really look at myself as a five-inning pitcher," he said. "I've been throwing six-plus innings my whole career up until last year. ... Hopefully I get stretched out a little bit this spring and I'll be able to do what I did in the past."