WASHINGTON -- When the Nationals report to camp in West Palm Beach this week, they will be one of the few teams with the luxury of having most of their roster set. Most of the Nats' roster is returning, and the team took steps to ensure that they filled any remaining needs during the offseason.
But there is one notable battle to keep an eye on during Spring Training: the battle for the fifth starter. It's an uncommon position for the Nationals. Every year since they began contending back in 2012, they have entered Spring Training with their rotation set. This year, however, the Nats' No. 5 starter will be decided in camp.
Barring any late signings, the battle figures to center around a couple of young starters, A.J. Cole and Erick Fedde. Washington will also have insurance options in camp, veteran starters such as Edwin Jackson and Tommy Milone.
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Cole will begin camp as the favorite to win the job after his performance to close out the 2017 season impressed members of the organization. In his last seven appearances (four starts) of the year, Cole posted a 2.70 ERA, showing off the potential that made him a former prospect. Considering that Cole is out of options, the Nats will either have to put him on the roster or risk losing him to waivers. They are not ready to give up on Cole, 26, so even if Cole does not win a job in the rotation, he is a good bet to make the Opening Day roster in the bullpen.
Even after struggling in his first taste of the Majors a year ago, Fedde -- the team's No. 4 prospect and top pitching prospect as rated by MLB Pipeline -- remains a key figure in the Nationals' future plans. He made three starts in Washington last year and posted a 9.39 ERA before he was eventually shut down.
Fedde, who turns 25 in February, will be given a chance to compete for the job, and the Nats still believe he projects to be a mid-rotation starter at some point. Perhaps with a solid spring he could speed up that timeline. If so, he will push Cole to the bullpen.
And then there are the veteran arms that the Nats have brought in for insurance, if they would prefer to have someone with a track record. Jackson filled in as the No. 5 starter during the second half of last season, and his strong start to the year earned him another look.
Milone has struggled the past two seasons, but after undergoing an elbow cleanup procedure this offseason, the Nationals are interested to see what the former prospect has left. He could profile well as a potential long reliever, but his ERA during the past two seasons is 6.50.
Both Jackson and Milone have an outside chance of making the roster, but with a good camp could earn their way into the mix.
Now, the Nationals should not be ruled out from adding a starter late in camp. They have done so in the past, and there are several free-agent starters still available. However, the team has maintained all offseason that adding a starter is not a priority, and general manager Mike Rizzo says he is not keeping tabs on the free-agent starter market.
That means the Nats are prepared to enter the year with their in-house options for No. 5 starter, making the competition during Spring Training one to monitor closely.