Health in spring will determine Ross’ course with Nats –


Age on opening day 2022: 28

How acquired: Traded with Trea Turner from Padres for Steven Souza Jr. and Travis Ott, who went to the Rays along with Jake Bauers, René Rivera and Burch Smith for Jose Castillo, Ryan Hanigan, Wil Myers and Gerardo Reyes, who went to the Padres, December 2014

MLB service time: 5 years, 18 days

2021 salary: $1.5 million

Contract status: Arbitration-eligible in 2022, free agent in 2023

2021 stats: 5-9, 4.17 ERA, 20 G, 19 GS, 0 CG, 108 IP, 98 H, 57 R, 50 ER, 17 HR, 34 BB, 109 SO, 8 HBP, 1.222 WHIP, 97 ERA+, 4.36 FIP, 1.3 fWAR, 0.9 bWAR

Quotable: “It’s never easy, especially for a young kid like Joe that’s gone through what he went through already, to shut him down for any reason. He was upset about it. But when I talk to him, I need to reiterate that this is great news. It’s headed in a positive direction, and he has to look at it like that. Now we just have to get him built up, get him strong again and have him get ready for spring training.” – manager Davey Martinez

2021 analysis: This was supposed be Joe Ross’ long-awaited breakthrough season, when he both stayed healthy and consistently pitched well enough to establish himself as a real part of the Nationals rotation. And at times, it absolutely looked like that was coming true.

In 12 of his first 17 starts, Ross allowed two or fewer earned runs. In seven of those, he didn’t allow any. He was effective against tough lineups from the Dodgers, Cardinals, Braves, Yankees and Giants. He was healthy, taking the ball every fifth day. And though the Nats were careful with him because he sat out the 2020 season, they still were comfortable letting him top the 100-pitch mark three times in early summer.

The problem, though, were those other starts. When Ross wasn’t in top form, he wasn’t average or even slightly below average. He was awful. He was blasted for 10 runs by St. Louis in April. He surrendered eight runs to the Diamondbacks in May. Despite all those quality starts along the way, he still ended July with a pedestrian 4.00 ERA.

And then things turn an even bigger turn for the worse: Ross spent 18 days on the injured list in July with right elbow inflammation. One month later, he went back on the IL after an MRI revealed a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament. The Nationals waited with baited breath for doctors to determine a course of action, and though Ross was spared the second Tommy John surgery of his career, he still had to be shut down for the remainder of the season and hope the rest and rehab will allow him to return to pitch healthy next year.

2022 outlook: Talk about major question marks heading into spring training. The Nats are hoping the extended time off, coupled with physical therapy, will allow Ross to report to West Palm Beach with a strong elbow and proceed as though he was never hurt. But they can’t really know that until they see him pitching off a mound with no issues, then return to do it again five days later.

Though he avoided surgery this summer, Ross isn’t totally out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination. There was a certain calculus to the decision: If he had Tommy John surgery this summer, he would’ve at best returned to pitch the final month of the 2022 season. If he comes to spring training and realizes he needs the surgery after all, he’ll miss the entire season and then focus on returning in 2023.

Perhaps all will be fine and Ross will return healthy and take that long-awaited step toward becoming a reliable big league starter. But as with Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals can’t just assume it’ll all work out. They have to be prepared for the very real possibility Ross’ elbow is still injured come spring training and he needs to have surgery after all that.

The timing couldn’t be much worse for Ross, who enters his final season of arbitration eligibility. One way or the other, he’s going to be free agent next winter. He would sure like to get there on the heels of a healthy and productive 2022 season, not a lost year that includes another major surgery and all the major career question marks that would accompany it.

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