WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — If the Washington Nationals really are holding a spring training competition to find their fifth starter, that’s not exactly what Jeremy Hellickson signed up for.
“The big thing for me was, I didn’t want to come into camp and have to compete for a job again,” Hellickson, 31, said Friday morning before the team’s second official workout for pitchers and catchers. “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 [about a deal for 2019]. That’s kind of where we left it. I haven’t really heard much after that.”
Hellickson signed a week before pitchers and catchers reported, part of the slow-drip offseason that still holds dozens of unsigned free agents. He settled on a one-year, $1.3 million contract that could include up to $4 million in incentives. He wanted to return to the Nationals, for whom he made 19 starts in 2018, and thought it was possible once he and General Manager Mike Rizzo connected this month.
But Hellickson didn’t want to joust for the final spot in the rotation, even if Manager Dave Martinez keeps insisting that it’s anyone’s to take. Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and Henderson Alvarez, in camp on a minor league deal, are also in the mix. Hellickson believes his numbers last season have earned him the role, just like he thought they would earn him a contract before early February. Instead he waited in Des Moines as a stalled market crawled in his direction, giving him something to prove in the coming weeks.
“Hellickson obviously is here, and for me he’s got the upper hand right now. He’s pitched really well for us,” Martinez said Friday. “We still got two months before Opening Day, and anything could happen. I want these guys to come out here and compete; Henderson, Joe, Fedde — they all understand that, and they all know that.”
Last season, Hellickson was mostly a two-times-through-the-order pitcher before the bullpen phone rang. He said that was used against him in contract negotiations, that there were times when he could have pitched deeper into games. He has had a few conversations about that with pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, and he thinks he can provide more innings this season, should the Nationals trust him beyond the fifth. He completed the sixth inning just twice last season and, after missing time with hamstring and wrist injuries, finished the year at 91 1/3 innings. His 19 starts resulted in a 5-3 record and a 3.45 ERA.
If he doesn’t earn the fifth starting spot, he probably will make the 25-man roster as a long reliever. But if Ross or Fedde fall short, Martinez envisions them with Class AAA Fresno so they can get more starts. Ross and Fedde each had injury issues last season; Ross was recovering from Tommy John surgery and Fedde missed most of the summer with right shoulder inflammation.
If his leash is similar to what it was last year, Hellickson probably would require a multi-inning reliever to be ready when he starts. But he says that may be unnecessary.
“I don’t really look at myself as a five-inning pitcher. I’ve been throwing six-plus innings my whole career up until last year,” Hellickson said. “And I could’ve done that plenty of times [last season]. I was out of there after 5 1/3, 5 2/3, 75 pitches. It’s tough to go through a lineup three times. Those guys are really good. There can’t be a lot of pitchers that have great numbers three times through. But hopefully I get stretched out a little bit this spring and I’ll be able to do what I did in the past.
“Like I said last year: whatever we need to do to win games. But I think letting me go a little longer will help keep the bullpen fresh later in the season. I think the games I pitched, we just killed those guys. Coming out after 60 pitches, those guys would get crushed.”
Ross’s task is to develop a more reliable change-up to go with his fastball and slider. Fedde needs to be more durable — he gained weight this offseason with that in mind — to give his stuff a chance to stand out. Alvarez last pitched a full major league season in 2014, was named an all-star that year for the Miami Marlins and is trying to bounce back after suffering repeated injuries since.
All of that makes Hellickson the logical option to round out the rotation. His experience and recent track record make him a good fit.
Just ask him.
“We really haven’t had too much dialogue on it, and I’m not going to worry too much about it,” he said. “Just going to go out there and pitch like I know how.”
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