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Nats encouraged by Kelley's progress

Righty expected to contribute in bullpen after undergoing stem-cell procedure
MLB.com @JamalCollier

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The reports they heard were encouraging, but just to be sure for themselves the Nationals sent a team athletic trainer to evaluate right-hander Shawn Kelley in about mid-January. He had just started throwing for the first time in the offseason and his arm felt much better through his first few sessions than it had the past few years.

The Nationals are excited about having Kelley healthy for 2018, an idea made possible after the stem-cell procedure Kelley underwent following the 2017 season. He had the procedure in order to help heal the elbow injuries he had that cut his season short in '16.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The reports they heard were encouraging, but just to be sure for themselves the Nationals sent a team athletic trainer to evaluate right-hander Shawn Kelley in about mid-January. He had just started throwing for the first time in the offseason and his arm felt much better through his first few sessions than it had the past few years.

The Nationals are excited about having Kelley healthy for 2018, an idea made possible after the stem-cell procedure Kelley underwent following the 2017 season. He had the procedure in order to help heal the elbow injuries he had that cut his season short in '16.

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"From what they tell me, it's supposed to kind of not regenerate the tissue in the elbow or the arthritis, but kind of have the healing properties to heal it faster than a PRP or a cortisone shot would do," Kelley said. "To be honest, I really don't know. But supposedly a lot of guys have had a lot of really good results with it. So they felt like that was more of a less-risk procedure with a chance of risk-reward kind of deal, instead of going in there to take out the bone chips or whatever is in there."

Video: WSH@ATL: Kelley notches his second save of the year

Kelley scuffled through a 2017 season during which he spent three separate stints on the disabled list -- and posted a 7.27 ERA in 33 games. But so far, Kelley feels the results of his offseason procedure are paying off. He threw his first bullpen session Thursday morning, and he said his arm feels normal.

Normal is good.

"For me, mentally, I just feel good right now," Kelley said. "That's what I told the trainers, strength coaches, coaches, everything, I want to stay right here. Whatever I need to do in the training room, whatever I need to do in the weight room, whatever I need to do conditioning wise for the rest of my body, if I can just stay in the state that I am right now, and maintain that all season, like I did in '16, I have all the confidence in the world that it'll be a great year and I'll be able to help out a lot with these other guys."

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The Nationals are counting on a bounce back from Kelley this season. They kept their three relievers at the back end of the bullpen intact in Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler, but Kelley, Koda Glover and Sammy Solis are expected to also contribute in important situations behind them. The latter three pitchers have battled health issues over the past few seasons.

New manager Dave Martinez has already theorized some ways to keep Kelley healthy, including limiting or eliminating the number of times he pitches on consecutive days.

"He's healthy. He's happy. And he's an awesome guy," Martinez said. "His teammates love him, he's a leader. My job is to keep him healthy the best way possible and to we're going to try to do that and maximize when we can use him and when not to use him."

Ross throwing at 75 feet
Right-hander Joe Ross, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, resumed baseball activities during the first week of January and has progressed to throwing at about 75 feet. These were encouraging signs for Ross this winter as he works his way back after undergoing surgery in July.

Video: WSH@NYM: Ross fires seven strong innings

Ross did not want to set a timetable for his return, but said he is aiming for around July or August, roughly one year after his surgery.

"I guess my arm will dictate that a little more," he said Saturday. "But that's my personal goal right now."

Ross' injury left a vacancy at the No. 5 spot in the Nats' rotation this season, and the team is holding an open competition for it during Spring Training. But perhaps somewhere around midseason Washington could add Ross to the mix, assuming his rehab goes smoothly.

Ross, 24, was inconsistent through 13 starts in 2017, posting a 5.01 ERA before he suffered the injury in July. But he is still a part of the Nats' future and someone they still believe will be a member of the rotation for years to come.

"It's all up from here," Ross said. "I'm looking forward to this season, especially watching these guys in the first half as I try to get back to the field to join them."

Doolittle remains closer
Nationals fans can still look forward to chanting "Dooooo!" during the ninth inning at Nationals Park. Doolittle will remain the Nationals closer this season, Martinez confirmed Saturday, as the Nats' new manager plans to keep the bullpen trio -- aka the "law firm" -- in the same order as last season.

Video: Outlook: Doolittle can be elite closer if healthy

That means ideally Kintzler should slot into the seventh inning, and Madson will pitch the eighth ahead of Doolittle, although Martinez left room for change behind Doolittle should the matchups dictate such.

"In a perfect world that would be great," Martinez said. "Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world. Those guys will know their roles and it'll be through conversation."

Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.

Washington Nationals, Tyler Duffey