The Washington Nationals have about as strong of starting pitching as you can find in not only the National League, but all of baseball. With a star-studded one-two punch of ace back-to-back Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and All-Star Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals are able to rely on their starters to be able to put them in position to win games. That’s not to mention another All-Star in Gio Gonzalez coming off a bounce back year and Tanner Roark who is hopeful for a bounce back year after an inconsistent 2017 season. This group was a big part of leading the Nationals to back-to-back National League East division titles, often times dominating throughout 2017. However, Washington has struggled to find a consistent fifth starter to fit the rest of their rotation this off-season with the uncertainty of Joe Ross‘ injury.

With Ross recovering from Tommy John surgery, the final spot in the Nationals’ starting rotation for 2018 is up for grabs with multiple option getting looks. Ross could regain this position once he fully recovers, but that is not expected until the final couple months of the 2018 season. There are a couple of options currently on the roster to replace Ross. Right-hander A.J. Cole is a viable option as he has started a few games in the past for Washington when Ross went down initially. He struggled to find a groove as first in August during 2017, going 0-4 with a 5.32 ERA in four starts. However Cole found a solid form in September, posting a 2-1 record with a 3.00 ERA in three starts while rotating between the starting rotation and bullpen. He did not throw bad in most starts as he lost some games with no run support last season, but he is young and continues to develop to where he could regain this position in the starting rotation again.

Another option could be right-hander Edwin Jackson, who was re-signed to a minor league deal this off-season with the Nationals after being signed mid-season during 2017. Jackson is a 15-year veteran who has been through it all, which could be used to his advantage since he has a lot more experience than Cole. He posted a 5-6 record with a 5.07 ERA over 13 starts in Washington. Jackson has been spotty over his career, pitching better on teams who give him good run support. Jackson split starts with Cole at the end of the season during 2017, but Cole was more consistent overall and younger which could give him the edge for the starting position if the Nationals decide to solve this issue internally.

Washington could decide to find their fifth starting pitcher via free agency. While the Nationals would like to find a pitcher to fit their system with some experience, but they also want a younger pitcher who can continue to develop. There had been reports earlier this off-season that there was strong mutual interest between the Nationals and former Chicago Cubs’ pitcher Jake Arrieta, but those talks have seemed to not amount into serious negotiations with Arrieta likely out of the team’s price range. There are some other intriguing option on the market though that the Nationals could be interested in. A popular choice by experts has been former St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher Lance Lynn, who posted an 11-8 record with a 3.43 ERA and 153 strikeouts in a career-high 33 starts during the 2017 season after recovering from Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss all of 2016. Lynn could be very successful pitching in Washington with a great offense and behind Scherzer, Strasburg, and Gonzalez as he has shown he can thrive with other talent around him. He is also only 30 years old and more affordable than top option on the market like Arrieta and Yu Darvish.

Another option could be former Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Alex Cobb, who posted a 12-10 record with a 3.66 ERA in a career-high 27 starts after missing all of 2015 and most of 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery. His injury history isn’t pretty, but Cobb has improved his statistic line and confidence each season. Cobb is also only 30 and more affordable than top options on the market. A final realistic option for the Nationals could be former Baltimore Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman, who has had an up and down career but has shown promise in a hitter-friendly ballpark in Baltimore during the past. While Tillman struggled to stay healthy during 2017 and posted an ugly 1-7 record with a 7.84 ERA over 19 starts, he had a career-year during 2016 going 16-6 with a 3.77 ERA. He has been an ace of a playoff team before in Baltimore and made the All-Star game in the past, so he could just need a change of scenery to find his rhythm again. While he may not be the popular choice, Tillman is only 29 with more baseball ahead of him and more affordable than other players on the market.

The Nationals have plenty of different options depending on how they want to go about this situation. All of these players have different styles of pitching that could bring a new positive aspect to Washington’s rotation. This hole in the Nationals’ roster is one of few weaknesses as they expect to be among baseball’s best teams again during 2018. I see the franchise narrowing down this choice between Cole and Lynn, with the slight edge to Cole because he is younger with less of an injury history with a chance to develop into a solid young starting pitcher. Cole also is already on the roster with less risk of spending money for a free agent who could struggle or get hurt. Either way, the Nationals have options to improve this weakness on their path to becoming the National League’s best during 2018.

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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