Round One of Spring Training Goes to Austin Voth and Joe Ross

joe ross
Joe Ross looked to strengthen his case for the Nationals’ fifth starter job in his Wednesday outing against the Yankees. (Photo: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)

Before the start of Spring Training, I touched on the key roster battles the Nationals were faced with. Most of those don’t have significant clarity yet, but one appears to have taken center stage: the fifth starter role.

Aside from Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin who will make their debuts over the next two days and Max Scherzer who just made his second appearance last night — every starter has thrown one time. With that in mind, here’s a look at how round one went for the men whose jobs are most in limbo and how they project going forward.

Austin Voth

The second start of the spring went to the man who I identified as the second-most likely to win the fifth starter spot. That belief was twofold: I wasn’t certain that the season he had in 2019 was sustainable, and Dave Martinez also seemed to favor someone else who will be discussed later in key situations.

Voth did his best to prove me wrong on Sunday.

Aside from hitting a batter, the 27-year-old righty had a dazzling outing against the Astros albeit with mostly backup hitters, as they continued to hide their top position players from Washington.

Even so, the whole story can’t be told in a box score.

Until he throws his full arsenal of pitches, I won’t make any wild proclamations about his status in this race, but the fact that his top two pitches played so well bodes favorably towards him at least making the team as a reliever since throwing fewer pitches requires mixing less variety of pitch types.

Erick Fedde

As Voth was dealing on the Nationals’ home field on Sunday, Fedde and a portion of the team made a road trip to face the Marlins. Initially, the challenger was holding serve with the more established pitcher. Unfortunately for the former, that didn’t last.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it; Sunday’s outing wasn’t a good one for Fedde. However, not considering every aspect of his outing isn’t entirely fair.

Even so, Davey clearly doesn’t have as much confidence in Fedde as some of the other options at his disposal as evidenced by the numerous games in which the manager pulled the young starter after he’d thrown 80 or fewer pitches. The fact that he has a minor league option remaining certainly doesn’t help his case for an Opening Day roster spot, either.

Fedde needs a big spring. This outing hurt him, but it didn’t eliminate him from contention.

Wil Crowe

Admittedly, Crowe drawing the start against a very solid Mets lineup surprised me and I know more about him than casual fans. Nonetheless, that’s what he did on Monday, and he had a respectable showing.

If you recall, I briefly discussed Crowe in my Spring Training primer.

“On the pitching side, the top prospect of this crop is Wil Crowe. According to the most updated MLB.com rankings, the 2017 second-round draft pick is Washington’s fourth-best prospect just behind [Luis] Garcia and sandwiched between the team’s first-round pitchers from the last two years. He features four average-to-above pitches, including a fastball that tops out at 95 MPH and average-to-above control. He hit his first rough patch during his late-season elevation to AAA, but his initial struggle after a promotion isn’t atypical of his minor league track record. In many respects, he’s very similar to Austin Voth, and most experts believe that he should become a fourth or fifth starter in the near future.”

I won’t say the future is now because it definitely isn’t but more outings like this will get him some looks at the big league level this regular season.

With that said, he’s almost certain to start the 2020 season in either AAA Fresno or AA Harrisburg, depending on where he stacks up against Fedde that could become as interesting a race to follow as the fifth starter battle.

Joe Ross

The elder statesman of the competition was scheduled to enter the Spring Training opener in the third inning, once Scherzer was scheduled to exit the game. Mother Nature had a different opinion, and since Ross had already warmed up in the bullpen, his debut was delayed until Wednesday against the Yankees with Saturday’s debacle treated as his otherwise standard bullpen session.

In typical Joe Ross fashion, his Wednesday outing wasn’t flashy, but it was supremely effective.

Like the rest of you, I was unable to watch his performance, but the returns were all encouraging.

As long as his fastball clocks where it sat in his debut, he consistently throws strikes, and his slider remains a viable compliment which it should Ross doesn’t have much to worry about. He’s out of minor league options, so he’s almost certainly making the roster, and the perceived preferential treatment Martinez has given him up to this point indicates that he is likely Plan A for the fifth starter role. At worst, his sinker-slider two-pitch arsenal would likely profile in the bullpen in fact, many talent evaluators believe that could become a better role for him.

Analysis

In the grand scheme of things, most of my opinions haven’t changed. The fifth starter job is still Ross’ to lose, and Voth appears to have a firm grip on a bullpen role — and he’d really have to lose it since he can’t be sent to the minor leagues.

With Fedde in the minors, there was always going to be an easy comparison to make between him and Crowe. If Crowe looked objectively better, the larger question would be whether he looked so good that his contract should be purchased from outside the 40-man roster, forcing someone else to be designated for assignment. Of course, promoting Crowe over Fedde would also be a bit of an indictment towards Washington’s former first-round selection, who would theoretically be out of minor league options and potentially buried on the depth chart next season.

As I was reminded via Twitter, there’s a very strong chance that one or more of the Nationals’ starters will have a start or two — or more — skipped this regular season to limit their workloads, considering how many extra pitches they threw deep into 2019.

If this indeed happens, either Fedde or Crowe will likely be called upon — either as a reliever or a starter. And that doesn’t even include the possibility of an injury to a veteran, which would lead to even more being asked of the younger arms.

Other Notes

I’ll ignore the relievers for now, since they’re pitching in uneven situations — anywhere from entering in the third inning to throwing in the seventh or eighth inning against minor leaguers. That should begin to normalize in the coming weeks.

As for the other starting pitchers, Scherzer has had two solid appearances — although one is technically unofficial, since the game was suspended and cancelled after the second inning. He tossed two shutout frames last Saturday, then surrendered two runs (one earned) over three innings last night.

Anibal Sanchez gave up one run over two innings on Tuesday, but he never faced any substantial danger. However, in both pitchers’ cases, results are far less important than getting reps and preparing for the season.

It’s tough to jump to many conclusions about position players this early in the spring. Nonetheless, here are my three biggest “way too early” takeaways:

  1. In every game Victor Robles and/or Trea Turner have played, one of them has hit leadoff.
    • Robles has batted first in all three games he’s played, including Saturday’s rainout.
    • Turner has led off three times and hit third on Wednesday — Robles was the leadoff hitter.
    • Eric Thames hit leadoff on Tuesday — in a weird lineup, clearly constructed to get key players at bats early — and Adam Eaton led the pack on Thursday.
  2. Juan Soto has batted third three times, while only hitting cleanup — his old spot — once.
    • Asdrubal Cabrera has batted second and third in his two starts.
    • Starlin Castro has hit third and fourth once apiece.
    • Howie Kendrick has been the cleanup hitter in all three of his starts.
    • In addition to his leadoff appearance, Thames has hit fourth (unofficially) and fifth once each.
  3. Cabrera appears to be ahead of Carter Kieboom.
    • Kieboom has one hit (a single) in six at bats — although also three walks and no strikeouts — along with two throwing errors.
    • Cabrera is currently two-for-five with an RBI single, a walk, a sac fly, and no errors.

A brief note on the last point:

If Kieboom doesn’t catch up to Cabrera, the team could send him to the minors and hold onto someone like Wilmer Difo or Andrew Stevenson — or even Emilio Bonifacio, my “pick to click” among the minor league Spring Training invitees. But that’s a larger discussion for some time down the road.

Lastly, on the topic of infield prospects, shortstop Luis Garcia has four hits — all singles — in nine at bats this spring. Garcia has also only struck out once and hasn’t committed an error. The 19-year-old minor leaguer has played four games, starting one of them, and went two-for-two last night. He won’t make the club, and he likely won’t get to the big leagues in 2020, but he’s also looking to carry over the momentum he built during his Arizona Fall League stint into this season after an unspectacular 2019.

Now back to the games! I’ll provide updates as the hunt for the fifth starter role develops, and I’ll remain on the lookout for more storylines — third base, lineup, bullpen, etc.

For now, here’s the upcoming schedule:

  • Friday: vs. Rays (1:05 p.m., MASN)
  • Saturday: at Cardinals (1:05 p.m., MLBN)
  • Sunday: at Mets (1:10 p.m.)
  • Monday: vs. Marlins (1:05 p.m.)
  • Tuesday: vs. Orioles (1:05 p.m.)
  • Wednesday: off
  • Thursday: vs. Cardinals (6:05 p.m., MASN/MLBN)
  • Friday, 3/6: at Marlins (7:05 p.m.)
  • Saturday, 3/7: vs. Marlins (1:05 p.m.) and at Mets (1:10 p.m.)
  • Sunday, 3/8: vs. Tigers (1:05 p.m.)

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