- Associated Press - Monday, March 19, 2018

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) - The Washington Nationals’ competition for the fifth starter spot could run beyond opening day.

The Nationals signed eight-year veteran Jeremy Hellickson to a minor league contract over the weekend, adding him to the mix that already included A.J. Cole and Erick Fedde. He would get a $2 million, one-year deal if added to the 40-man roster and the chance to earn $4 million in performance bonuses.

“We like the rotation we have,” Washington general manager Mike Rizzo said. “This just adds another layer of depth for us.”

The 30-year-old Hellickson is scheduled to make his first Grapefruit League appearance in one of Friday’s split squad games. Cole will start the other game.

Depending on how that outing goes, the NL East champions might leave Hellickson behind at the spring training facility when they break camp on Sunday, allowing the right-hander to continue to build arm strength in the minor league camp.

Rizzo cited past experiences rushing Joe Blanton and Matt Wieters through camp as reasoning for not pushing Hellickson, who says he’s ready, to join the rotation sooner. With that in mind, the Nationals gave Hellickson an opt-out clause in his contract that can be executed later than the traditional date prior to opening day.

“When you don’t have your spring training, it just snowballs and you never catch up,” Rizzo said.

The Nationals have some leeway in the decision’s timetable should Rizzo want more time. Off days early in the schedule could allow Washington to skip the fifth starter the first time through the rotation and still allow Max Scherzer to make his second start of the season on his full four days of rest.

Washington attempted to do something similar last season, sending scheduled fifth starter Joe Ross to the minors to start the season and calling up Jeremy Guthrie from the minors to make a spot start. Guthrie surrendered 10 runs while getting only two outs and didn’t pitch again.

“I don’t know if we’re going to play any games with not having a fifth starter and kind of piecing it together,” Rizzo said. “That backfired on us last year when we tried to do that. I learned my lesson with that one. Tried to be too cute.”

The Nationals don’t have to get as cute this season. Cole pitched well on Sunday, striking out six while allowing only one run in four innings. If Cole doesn’t win the rotation spot, he’ll be in the Nationals’ bullpen.

“Oh, he’s going to make the team,” Rizzo said of Cole. “He’s out of options, he’s got a great arm, he’s a good prospect.”

On Monday, manager Dave Martinez officially announced Max Scherzer as the opening day starter in Cincinnati. Stephen Strasburg gets the second start, followed by Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark.

Hired in late October, Martinez may have waited until the Grapefruit League’s final week to officially announce Scherzer as his opening day guy, but he made the decision much earlier.

“The day I got the job,” he said.

Fedde, a former first round pick, still has options and is likely ticketed for the minors.

Hellickson arrived in camp on Saturday bent on showing he’s not the same pitcher who struggled so badly during his short stint with Baltimore.

The 2011 American League Rookie of the Year while with Tampa Bay, Hellickson went 8-11 between Philadelphia and Baltimore last season. After the trade to the Orioles on July 28, Hellickson posted a 2-6 record with a 6.97 ERA.

“I just put a little too much pressure on myself, I think,” Hellickson said. “Once things started going bad it just kind of snowballed. Obviously, the numbers weren’t good.”

The Nationals have reason to believe Hellickson can rebound this season.

“We found a couple of differences in his delivery that I know he’s worked on in California and he’s taken here,” Rizzo said. “Hopefully he can make that little adjustment.”

NOTES: Shortstop Trea Turner left Washington’s clubhouse on Monday to take care of an ingrown nail on his right big toe. He could return to the lineup as early as Tuesday, Martinez said. Earlier this spring, star outfielder Bryce Harper had the same problem.

“That’s been the trend of spring,” Martinez said.

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