Erick Fedde was shut down for the season, but the top pitching prospect in the Nationals’ system could help them in 2018. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Erick Fedde still counts as a prospect by Baseball America’s standards, and a rookie by Major League Baseball’s. The three starts he made for the Washington Nationals in 2017 do not constitute a significant enough sample for either organization to consider them a season’s worth of work, and he will therefore enter next season rated as the Nationals’ third-best prospect, a 25-year-old rookie with a 9.39 career ERA.

But those three starts did provide enough of a glimpse at the Nationals’ top pitching prospect to raise the usual, hot-take questions on exactly what he will be for them down the line. Can he throw his change-up for strikes? If he can’t, does his fastball have enough life to live on? And more importantly, can he stay healthy?

The latter question would have been asked about him regardless of how his 2017 unfolded. Fedde had Tommy John surgery in 2014, the year the Nationals drafted him in the first round, and has been carefully monitored for his workload since. In an effort to manage his innings and potentially meet a then-glaring major league need, the Nationals decided to move him to the bullpen for 16 appearances.

While he gained experience, the Nationals ultimately decided they did not need Fedde in the bullpen and stretched him back into a starter. They called him up for three separate spot starts in the second half. In the third start, his velocity fell into the high 80s as he threw 112 pitches over six innings, a dugout decision that rankled front office decision-makers who had known of some soreness beforehand and warned coaches to be wary.

Fedde’s season ended after that start, when the Nationals placed him on the disabled list with a forearm flexor strain, the kind of injury that sounds alarms for post-Tommy John pitchers but does not necessarily indicate a major, long-term issue.

Concerned as some within the organization were about how Fedde was handled that day, the Nationals do believe Fedde will be healthy for spring training in 2018, at which time they will have to answer the other questions Fedde’s three-start showcase raised.

As Fedde rose through the Nationals’ system, he became known for 1) a Max Scherzer-esque bulldog demeanor and relentless competitiveness, 2) a sinking fastball with enough on it to play in the majors and 3) a slider that was good enough to get swings and misses. During those three big league starts, Fedde’s fastball sat mostly in the low 90s — just fine, but not quite as advertised. By the third start, he was throwing far more curveballs than sliders, something former pitching coach Mike Maddux suggested he incorporate into his regular arsenal.

In other words, Fedde seemed like a different pitcher when the Nationals last saw him than he did in spring training, when his fastball-slider combination was aided by an in-progress change-up. His fastball lacked the same life. His slider lacked the same bite. Multiple scouts wondered if the irregular workload fostered by Fedde’s brief move to the bullpen (and back again) disrupted his rhythm. After his last start, Fedde pointed out that he had not worked on regular rest in some time and spent much of the last month of his season shuttling between the majors and the minors. In other words, exactly which Fedde would appear if given regular rotation duties next season remains to be seen, but the Nationals will have to decide whether to bet on him.

Assuming the status quo, Fedde seems to have as good a chance as anyone to seize the fifth spot in the Nationals rotation behind Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark. Joe Ross, who underwent Tommy John surgery last summer, will not be ready in time. A.J. Cole would probably be first in line for the job after settling in to a 3.81 ERA in 11 appearances. But when it comes to the Nationals rotation, one should not assume the status quo.

General Manager Mike Rizzo has said he will seek rotation depth this offseason, and the acquisition of any proven middle-of-the-rotation or back-end starter would almost certainly push Fedde from contention for that fifth spot. If that happens, the right-hander would likely start the 2018 season at Class AAA, where he could work on throwing his change-up for strikes and deciding how to utilize the slider and curveball he used at various times — but, importantly, rarely at the same time — last season.

Regardless, Fedde will almost certainly be one of the first call-ups in case of injury or unexpected starting need. After Rizzo traded Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez to the Chicago White Sox last offseason, Fedde represents the last of the Nationals’ near-ready elite starting prospects. While they tried to replenish their starting depth with a pitching-heavy draft last June, none of those pitchers will be ready to contribute soon.

So as Fedde enters the 2018 season, those three starts he made last season should not be used to draw conclusions about what might come next. They raised questions he has not yet had time to answer, questions — such as those about his health, or which breaking ball will be his out pitch, or whether he will control the change-up — that require time. By pursuing rotation depth this offseason, the Nationals seem determined to give him that time, willing to wait while he answers the questions that surround him, unwilling to let three starts derail any optimism about those to come.

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