WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Joe Ross has had a curious spring, often appearing as a recovering starter while, at times, looking like a possible addition to the Washington Nationals’ bullpen.
That is because the Nationals haven’t quite decided how they’ll use Ross moving forward. He has been a starter, almost exclusively, for parts of four major league seasons. It is what he debuted as at 22 years old in 2015. It is how he impressed a year later, finishing with a 3.43 ERA in 19 starts and etching himself into Washington’s plans.
But those plans may be shifting. Ross’s stuff, coupled with recent elbow issues and the Nationals’ rotation depth, may rationalize a switch to reliever, at least for the coming season. And only if the benefits outweigh the risks.
“We are still thinking about that. And we are also thinking about Joe, what’s best for him,” Manager Dave Martinez said Monday morning of moving Ross to the bullpen. “It’s hard [to say] because of his injury, but I still really believe he can start. I really do. It’d be nice if we could get him a little bit stretched out right now and see where we are at.”
Ross made his first spring training start against the New York Mets on Monday in Port St. Lucie. Martinez, who stayed in West Palm Beach for the Nationals’ other split-squad game, wanted Ross to throw three innings and around 50 pitches. Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist made the 50-minute bus trip, specifically to assess Ross. The 25-year-old finished three innings, gave up two earned runs and yielded four hits and no walks as he threw 61 pitches.
It’s somewhat surprising that Ross’s first start came March 18, close to five weeks after pitchers and catchers reported. The Nationals didn’t play with split squads until Monday, and all but a pair of exhibitions had been started by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez or Jeremy Hellickson, their expected rotation. (Erick Fedde started the other two.) That left Ross with five appearances that lasted two innings or fewer, all of which came out of the bullpen and all of which were aimed at rebuilding arm strength following Tommy John surgery.
He had the procedure in July 2017 after making 13 starts for Washington that season, and he returned in September 2018, making three appearances with a heavily managed workload. The past few weeks haven’t been much different; the Nationals are easing him into whatever role they end up choosing.
“If he’s going to pitch in the bullpen, then he needs to pitch,” Martinez said. “I don’t want him to be a guy that just goes out there and throws two innings one day and [we] can’t use him for two or three days.”
Naturally, the Nationals think Ross is most valuable in the rotation. That could mean for them or, possibly, another club looking for a soon-to-be 26-year-old with two more years of team control. It is easier to go from starting to relieving. It is hard to flip the other way once an arm adjusts to shorter appearances. That’s reason for the Nationals to keep Ross starting for as long as they can — which, really, will be as long as he progresses there.
Those are the risks — diminishing Ross’s value, stunting his growth, shifting him before his potential as a starter is reached — that will be pitted against his upside as a reliever. The Nationals would also lose a depth starter and would have to rely on some combination of Fedde, Austin Voth, Kyle McGowin and Henderson Alvarez to make fill-in appearances. Injuries forced the Nationals to start nine pitchers three or more times in 2018. None of the secondary options for this year, post-surgery Ross included, are proven major leaguers. It could hurt to have fewer of them.
But there are clear ways Ross could fit in this bullpen. His sinker-slider combination would play well, and his fastball may sit in the mid-90s if he is only pitching an inning or two at a time. Washington will also need a long reliever to back up Hellickson if he continues to be a two-times-through-the-order starter. As of now, the Nationals’ bullpen includes closer Sean Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Matt Grace, Tony Sipp, Justin Miller and likely Wander Suero, who has minor league options and could be swapped out for Ross if Washington wants to test him out there. Ross would then be a logical multi-inning option, insurance for a short Hellickson start and a good matchup against strong right-handed hitters.
The Nationals could make a decision soon; Martinez will use the next week to see how Ross can best help himself and this team. Or they could evaluate their rotation and bullpen for a few months of the regular season and then act. Ross will probably begin the year as a starter at Class AAA Fresno, so they can stretch him out and carefully watch his pitch totals. But Martinez hasn’t ruled out experimenting with him in the bullpen, even if the main goal is getting his arm right.
“Even though he came back and he feels good, we want to keep him that way,” Martinez said. “He’s been good. I want to make sure he starts the season off completely healthy and we go from there.”
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