September 18, 2007
What the Cardinals have done with their starting pitching staff in 2007 seemed a lot more impressive two weeks ago before they dropped 11 of their last 12 games. After manhandling the Pirates on September 6, they were 69-68, a record that was the product of a long battle to return to an above-.500 record that they had been waging since the twelfth game of the season. They had done this with a rotation that was greatly turned over from 2006, their World Championship season. Three-quarters of their games this year have been started by men who did not start a single game for them last year. This was in marked contrast to the 2005 staff, one in which the front five-Chris Carpenter, Jason Marquis, Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan and Matt Morris-made all but two of the team's starts.)
Only four pitchers who got starts in 2006 have also made starts for them this year. Anthony Reyes made 17 starts for the Cards last year, and 20 in 2007, mostly with unfortunate results, as we now know. Brad Thompson made one start last year, along with 41 relief appearances. He's gotten the ball in his locker 15 times this year. Injuries have limited Mark Mulder to just three starts this season after he was held to 17 last year. Most infamously, Chris Carpenter has not been seen since Opening Day, that after making 32 starts in 2006.
The rest of the starts have either gone to imports-Todd Wellemeyer, Mike Maroth, Kip Wells, Randy Keisler and Joel Pineiro-or to the converted relievers, Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper. The Converts have been the most successful subset of the staff, currently sporting a 25-21 won-loss record. The Imports are at 14-26, while the Returnees dropped to 8-24 after Thompson couldn't get out of the fourth inning against the Phillies last night.
Some of this was planned, and some of it, particularly the Carpenter injury, was thrust upon them. The Cardinals faced some interesting decisions heading into this season; they could have thrown a bunch of money at some pitchers. In spite of what has happened, I still think they did the right thing in letting the trio of Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver, and Jason Marquis head elsewhere. Weaver was an obvious choice for non-renewal, although Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty was asked frequently if he would be brought back in the wake of his postseason success. Jocketty smartly didn't take that particular brand of bait, and publicly dismissed small sample sizes as something he would not consider as part of his decision making process. Weaver's season (-10.6 VORP) has made Jocketty's decision to let him walk look even smarter in hindsight than it did at the time.
Should we hold the Cardinals to negative accounts for letting Marquis take a hike in spite of his 26.6 VORP this season? I wouldn't; that was a risk not worth taking. With a VORP of 17.5, Suppan shouldn't exactly be causing the Cardinals to kick their own tailfeathers for letting him get away, either. Those two cost the Cubs and Brewers in excess of $60 million for a combined seven years. The Cardinals are getting much better production out of their replacements, the two converted relievers Looper and Wainwright. Looper's contract looked kind of silly when it was inked prior to the 2006 season (three years/$13.5 million), but it's making sense in the context of what he's doing now, especially compared to the money the men he replaced got elsewhere.
It seems a bit strange to praise a team in the midst of a freefall, but I suppose that's what I'm doing-but only up to a point. None of their imports have been praiseworthy, but the good thing about them is that they're expendable, and will not hinder the team when it comes time to reconstitute the staff for 2008. Furthermore, by not getting bogged down in long obligations to Suppan and Marquis (or, heaven forbid, Weaver), the team has some money to play with for next year. This is, after all, a division that does not demand a lot of wins from its champions.
So, how rare is it for a team to remake its starting roster to the extent the Cardinals have? Only about one team in 75 since 1959 has gotten down to around 25 percent of its starts from returning starters. The Cardinals are ranked about 15th (and would be in the top five if Thompson hadn't made that one start in 2006). These are the most extreme clubs in this regard:
1982 San Francisco Giants, 9.9 percent: Only three pitchers who had started games for the Giants in the strike year of 1981 were back on the staff the next year, and one of those, Gary Lavelle, confined himself to relieving after starting just three games in '81. One of the others was a reliever and occasional starter as well, Al Holland. He made three starts (and 44 relief appearances) in '81, and seven starts and 51 relief appearances in '82. Fred Breining started just one game in 1981 (out of 45 appearances), and then stepped up to nine in '82. Between the two seasons, the Giants jettisoned Doyle Alexander, Vida Blue, Ed Whitson, and Tom Griffin via trades, removing the men who accounted for 77 percent of their starts. Two separate trades with the Royals brought the Giants their entire front four for 1982-Bill Laskey, Atlee Hammaker, Rich Gale, and Renie Martin combined to start 112 games. (How rich was the Royals farm system at that time? Consider that a few years after giving the Giants an entire rotation, they would produce Mark Gubicza, Danny Jackson, and Bret Saberhagen, as an extended segment of It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over talks about in its coverage of the 1984 AL West title race.) And the reward for such turnover? The Giants allowed a half-run more per game in '82 than they had in '81, an increase more than twice as great as the league as a whole.
1981 California Angels, 11.8 percent: Bruce Kison made 13 starts for the '80 club and just four in '81, as he was on the Disabled List three months the first year, and four the next. Dave Frost (13/9) was disabled for two months in 1980, and sent down the following year. They were the only two repeaters on the team. The Angels cleared out their most active starters by trading Frank Tanana, demoting Alfredo Martinez and Chris Knapp, and moving Don Aase to the bullpen. That made way for Ken Forsch, Geoff Zahn, and Mike Witt. The Angels runs allowed dropped by .86 from '80 to '81, about twice the reduction of the league as a whole.
1961 Kansas City Athletics, 14.8 percent: The A's were trading fools in this era, and they started the 1961 season with very few holdovers from 1960, and purged and/or traded those few by June 14. But to start off with, Johnny Kucks (17 starts) was done with the major leagues, Ned Garver (15) was given up in the expansion draft to the Angels, and Dick Hall (28) was traded to the Orioles, where he would soon drift into the relief role for which he is better known today. None of the minor starters, including George Brunet and John Tsitouris, were back with the club the next year. From among the '60 starters, only Bud Daley (35 starts in 1960), Ray Herbert (33), Don Larsen (15), and Ken Johnson (6) got starting assignments the next year, but were all gone less than halfway into '61. Johnson made just one start before being sold to Toronto of the International League in May. Larsen got one, and Herbert 12 before they were packed off to the White Sox on June 10. Daley was sent to that happy place that all A's wanted to go, the Yankees, on June 14; he was stellar for New York in the Series that year. In their places, the A's used rookies Jim Archer and Norm Bass in their only full seasons, Jerry Walker (whom they got for Hall), and then Bob Shaw, who came over in the Larsen/Herbert deal. The A's surrendered a half-run more per game in '61 over 1960.
2006 Texas Rangers, 17.9 percent: Only four 2005 Rangers made starts for the team in 2006-Kameron Loe (15), Edinson Volquez (8), John Wasdin (5), and R.A. Dickey (1). Traded, reassigned or allowed to drift off unattended were Chris Young, Kenny Rogers, Chan Ho Park, Pedro Astacio, Ryan Drese, Ricardo Rodriguez, and Juan Dominguez. In their stead, the Rangers completely revamped their rotation to include Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, while trade pickup Adam Eaton was limited to 13 games. Many of the rest of the starts were made by pitchers who have not established themselves as mainstays-Robinson Tejeda, John Koronka, and John Rheinecker. Kip Wells was on hand for a couple of starts. The Rangers went from a half-run over league average allowed per game to just under average.
1986 Cleveland Indians, 18.4 percent: Three 1985 starters returned for more in '86-Neal Heaton (33 starts in '85, and 12 in '86), Don Schulze (18/13) and Jose Roman (3/5, which marked the end of his 1-8 career with an 8.12 ERA). Heaton was shipped to Minnesota for John Butcher on June 20. Already gone were Bert Blyleven, Roy Smith, Ramon Romero, Tom Waddell, Vern Ruhle, and Curt Wardle. In their places, Phil Niekro was brought in as a free agent, as was Tom Candiotti after a season spent in the minors. Ken Schrom arrived from Minnesota in exchange for Romero and Smith. Cleveland improved by 24 wins, but the pitching was fairly static qualitatively (5.31 RA/PG to 5.16). The big gain between the two seasons was on offense, where a 100-run jump took place.
Other recent teams that have made major starting staff changeovers: 2000 Brewers (19.0 percent), the 1995 Red Sox (20.8 percent), the 1997 Expos (21.6 percent), the 1989 Yankees (21.7 percent), the 2003 Braves (23.5 percent), and the 2005 Diamondbacks (23.5 percent).
Jason Pare contributed valuable research to this column.