- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2017

Joe Ross passed quietly through the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse in the final two months of the season, there, but not really.

Ross had Tommy John surgery July 19 to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. His uncertain status for next season is a microcosm of the back-end of the Washington Nationals’ rotation. They have four clear starters for next season. It’s unclear who will be the fifth or sixth.

The top of the rotation is occupied by the best 1-2 combination in baseball. Max Scherzer may win the National League Cy Young Award again this season. It would be his third total and second in as many years. No one pitched better than Stephen Strasburg after the All-Star break this year. He carried an 0.86 ERA in 10 starts to close the regular season before twice dominating in the National League Division Series.

Those two will be paired for at least two more years. If Strasburg picks up all the options on his contract, they will be together for five more years. That’s almost 2,000 more innings of Scherzer and Strasburg. Behind them, questions start.

Last year was Gio Gonzalez’s best season since he delivered a 2.89 ERA in 2012, his first season with the Nationals. Gonzalez made two subpar postseason starts, but his most important outing came Sept. 12. That’s when Gonzalez surpassed the 180-inning mark, automatically vesting his $12 million contract option for 2018. It was a lousy start, too. Just five innings during which he allowed five earned runs.

So, Washington has a $12 million left-hander on its hands this offseason. Can it trade him at that rate? Just a single year at that cost and one that is likely to deliver 180 innings? Can it afford to? Behind Gonzalez the unsteadiness of the rotation only increases, even when taking into account his fluctuating results. Gonzalez’s 2017 ran counter to the prior four seasons during which his ERA rose annually.

The Nationals also have to determine what they think of Tanner Roark. He did not throw a pitch in the postseason despite the NLDS lasting five games. He was the Game 4 starter, until he wasn’t, replaced by Strasburg following the miscommunication of Moldgate. Roark pitched well in 2014, was jettisoned to the bullpen — and upset by it — the following season, pitched well in 2016, then rambled his way to a 4.67 ERA in 2017. That was almost two runs higher than 2016 (2.83). He was the outlier among the starters. The three pitchers in front of him threw as well as they ever have. Roark regressed.

Behind him comes Ross and further questions. Since Ross didn’t have surgery until midseason, his readiness for the start of next season in in doubt. Washington’s top pitching prospect Erick Fedde was also injured by the end of the year. He had a right forearm strain and was shut down in September.

When Fedde was healthy and pitching in the major leagues, his results were less than encouraging. Fedde finished with a 9.39 ERA with a colossal 2.152 WHIP in the small sample of three starts. Fedde will turn 25 before next season begins, so he’s no longer in the youngest stages of his career. He’s also alone in the prospect pool following the 2016 offseason trade of Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. According to Baseball America, the only other two starting pitchers among the 10 best prospects in Washington’s system are Seth Romero and Wil Crowe. Each were drafted in 2017. Neither has pitched above the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

Which may mean a shot for A.J. Cole to finally be a full-time part of the rotation. His 52 innings in the major leagues last season were marred by walks, but resulted in just a 3.81 ERA. He was asked to start and come out of the bullpen to help the Nationals get to the end of the regular season with their rotation intact.

Regardless of what the organization thinks of Fedde and Cole, it’s sure to bring in other veteran free agent starters. Washington has pivoted from an organization filled with pitching depth to one in need of it at the back end of the rotation.

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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