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March 8, 2016

Pitching Backward

Starting Pitching Depth, Ranked

by Jeff Long

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Each of the past two seasons, Sam Miller or I have done this fun bit of analysis that looks at which teams would fare best if they had to resort to their sixth and seventh starters (2014, 2015). Obviously, every GM needs to fill out the top five slots in his rotation, but that’s just the bare minimum. Over the course of the season, nearly two-thirds of teams will have two starters injured at the same time, meaning fans will get acquainted with sixth, seventh, and possibly even eighth and ninth starters.

As spring training ramps up, injuries are inevitable. So it makes sense for teams to assess their options now, just in case something goes awry before the real games start.

Methodology: Using BP’s depth charts, and adjusting in only a couple cases to reflect current realities, we identified two pitchers likely to be called upon in case of injury to current rotation member. We pro-rated each pitcher’s WARP over 165 innings; summed, sorted. I also made an effort to not include guys who won’t be available until midseason (like Yu Darvish), since they don’t fit the spirit of this exercise. Keep in mind that generally speaking I’ve pulled the two *best* options per PECOTA, which means that in some cases (like the Mariners, for example) we’ll be asking swingmen or even long relievers to step into full time starting roles if it makes sense.

A few quick words on the numbers you’re about to see: With BP’s new focus on DRA and, more importantly for these purposes cFIP, you may notice something interesting in this year’s PECOTA projections compared to previous seasons. Previously we’d have many players included that projected for negative WARP, leading to a handful of teams falling below replacement level. But being bad enough to draw negative value and good enough to stick in a rotation (even as a sixth or seventh man) is pretty rare; this new iteration of PECOTA, using cFIP instead of FRA, seems to be more on board with that.

Lonely Elite

To be young again. The Pirates rotation is backed up by two top pitching prospects who project to produce nearly 4 WARP if given 165 innings apiece this season. The Pirates are truly at the top of the heap here, their a half a win better than the next closest teams. It’s worth noting that both pitchers project to be better than Ryan Vogelsong, Jon Niese, and Jeff Locke. That said, they’re getting squeezed out of the rotation for now because of options, player development needs, and presumably some emphasis on managing their pre-arbitration timeline. But even Kyle Lobstein and Juan Nicasio project to be decent enough if needed to go 165 innings next season, suggesting that the Pirates have a lot of room for error in the rotation.

Best of the Rest

The majority of these teams are working with relatively young sixth/seventh starters who have some promise but don’t profile as top-of-the-rotation options, even further down the road. These guys might not be Glasnow or Taillon, but they’re perfectly fine, reliable league-average pitchers. In some cases there is hope for more, like in the case of Berrios, but generally speaking this group is most likely to peak in the middle of the rotation.

There’s an interesting mix of competitive teams and ones in rebuild mode here, but the common thread appears to be that each of these teams has had some amount of focus on building a lot of intriguing pitching depth. While some of these pitchers have their warts, they also have interesting profiles that could play very well in the right circumstances. For all of these teams, their approach to team building seems to have paid off.

Rolling the Dice

This group is where my personal opinion diverges from PECOTA a bit. Many of the pitchers included here are converted relievers. Take Joe Blanton, who struggled as a starter last season but was lights out as a reliever, for example. Things would have to go very wrong for him to be called upon to start a significant number of games. Likewise for Vidal Nuno, who is firmly penciled in to the Mariners’ bullpen, but who might be the first guy called upon in the case of an emergency.

The Dodgers are especially confounding. Beachy and Blanton highlight a list that also includes Brandon McCarthy (0.5 WARP/165 IP), Zach Lee (1.2 WARP), and Julio Urias (1.3 WARP) among others. PECOTA really doesn’t like McCarthy.

In general, this tier seems like a big ol' roll of the dice because many of the pitchers listed above have some promise, but also HUGE question marks with regards to whether or not they could shoulder the kind of workload we’re discussing here. If we’re bearish on their stamina or ability to pitch well over longer durations then these teams could quickly slide down this list. Or, another way of saying it: The depth requires depth.

Wily Veterans

There is one glaring, sore-thumb exception in this group in Lucas Giolito. We’ll circle back to Giolito, but for now we’ll ignore him as an outlier. Each of these teams has buttressed its starting rotation with guys who have been called on to pitch significant innings as a starter before. Some (Feldman, Floyd) are rounding out their careers hoping to support playoff contenders, while others (Petit, Straily) are simply trying to re-establish themselves.

To some degree, these teams are taking a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach, which is just fine. The notable exception is Giolito, BP’s #3 overall prospect and top pitching prospect. Giolito is the closest thing to a can’t-miss prospect that exists in the minors from a pitching standpoint, and he’s likely to finally break into the majors this season for the Nationals. The odds of him getting 165+ big-league innings are very low, but the Nationals could get desperate and turn to Giolito sooner than anticipated.

Goin’ Prospecting

Our fifth tier of teams is relying heavily on prospects in one form or another. The A’s, who headline this group, do have established MLB pitcher Felix Doubront as their no. 7, but he’s joined by the recently acquired Sean Manaea, he of the spectacular hair.

Middling pitcher Buck Farmer is joined on the Tigers by Michael Fulmer, the best prospect in the Tigers’ farm system. The Reds are relying on their two best prospects, though PECOTA has their production in 2016 flipped from their ranking on our Reds’ Top Ten. Tyler Wagner had a disastrous debut in 2015, but he’s joined by Braden Shipley who jumped Archie Bradley to lead the Diamondbacks’ prospect list.

¯_(ツ)_/¯

This tier of seven teams includes a lot of names that should look familiar, but that maybe you haven’t seen a whole lot of recently. That’s probably pretty telling, when you consider how far down this list these teams have landed. Guys like Minor, Matzek, Erlin, Crick, and Turner were once considered to be relatively hot prospects. Their stars have all faded a bit, which is why they’re vying for the role of sixth or seventh starter, and not jockeying for positions within their clubs’ rotations.

The Marlins and Yankees have a slightly different approach, pairing an established back-of-the-rotation starter (Conley, Nova) with a swingman who is probably better off never starting a game (Hand, Mitchell).

For all of these teams, it’s probably for the best if we just cross our fingers and wish really, really hard that they are in that one-third of teams who don’t require multiple backup pitchers. The alternative is, frankly, not pretty.

Bottom of the Barrel

The Rangers have a lot of somewhat intriguing options for the sixth/seventh starter competition. The only problem is that PECOTA hates all of them. Over 165, PECOTA projects their various options for the fifth, sixth and seventh roles to produce:

· Nick Martinez – 0.1 WARP (Projected fifth starter)

· Tony Barnette – 0.7 WARP

· Anthony Ranaudo – 0.0 WARP

· Chi Chi Rodriguez – 0.0 WARP

· Phil Klein – 0.0 WARP

· Andrew Faulkner – 0.0 WARP

The good news is that the Rangers have a handful of top prospects on the cusp of the majors. The bad news, for our purposes anyway, are that they’re all position players.

Jeff Long is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here

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