March 3, 2011
Divide and Conquer, AL West
The Weakest Links
“A chain is no stronger than its weakest link.” –The Cornhill Magazine, 1868
In 2011, the above axiom is probably better applied to systems or mechanisms with many heavily interdependent working parts—such as, say, the physical act of pitching itself—than something like a major-league team’s starting pitching rotation. Nobody could (or would) convincingly argue that the Phillies’ starting five is only as good as presumptive fifth starter Joe Blanton; clearly, the collective strength of Halladay/Lee/Oswalt/Hamels far supersedes Blanton’s weaknesses on the bump. But what we can confirm is that every rotation does have a weak link embedded somewhere, lurking in the form of an injury-prone, inconsistent, or otherwise unreliable pitcher upon whom the team is at least somewhat reliant for innings and production.
Seeing as how this is an AL West-centric series, I can hardly imagine a better way to kick off this year’s festivities than by looking at some of the shakiest propositions populating each of the projected starting rotations in baseball’s smallest, but arguably feistiest, division.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
For all the hype over Scott Kazmir over the years, it’s pretty easy to forget that he has thrown more than 152.1 innings only twice in seven seasons. Since this is a story about frail or otherwise questionable hurlers who are being forecasted to crack their respective teams’ rotations, and since the rest of the Anaheim front five constitutes some of the best (and healthiest) starting pitching talent in the division, Kazmir is the only logical pick from the Angels’ stable, and it’s not hard to discern why after glancing at his 2010 rate stats: 150 IP, 5.94 ERA, 5.58 K/9, 4.74 BB/9, 1.50 HR/9, and two separate shoulder-induced DL stints. That’s something you’d normally expect from a deteriorating mid-30s veteran… not a 26-year-old only two years removed from a K/9 ratio approaching double digits.
Anaheim reportedly chose the proactive route in attempting to repair—or at least patch up—Kazmir in time for Opening Day, mandating that he rework his off-season conditioning program so that a greater emphasis was placed on arm strength, shoulder flexibility, and balance in his delivery. Given the performance precedent he set during happier times, one would imagine the Halos will at least give Kazmir enough leash in 2011 to ascertain whether those changes yielded any observable improvement, and whether there’s anything left to be salvaged. If not, the mountain becomes tougher to climb for the Angels, with left-handed insurance policy Hisanori Takahashi presumably being burned to replace Kazmir.
Runner-Up: There really isn’t one, at least from an injury standpoint, so let’s try this tongue-in-cheek logical jump: In 2007, Ervin Santana posted a 1.56 HR/9 and 5.76 ERA. In 2008, it dropped to a 0.95 HR/9 and 3.49 ERA. In 2009, it jumped back up to a 1.55 HR/9 and 5.03 ERA. In 2010, it again dropped to a 1.09 HR/9 and 3.92 ERA. Clearly, this pattern will hold and Santana will be terrible in 2011.
Much snickering and rib-jabbing ensued in Texas when Oakland inked two of the Rangers’ more catastrophic pitching disasters in recent memory (Rich Harden and Brandon McCarthy) over the winter, but neither acquisition entailed anything more than a minimal commitment for Oakland, and neither is being counted on to be anything more than a potential fifth starter at this juncture. That being said, indications are that McCarthy has emerged as a co-favorite—along with Josh Outman—to nail down that last spot, and if my own years of closely tracking McCarthy’s tumultuous ride through the Rangers organization are worth anything in the present, this figures to be a bumpy ride.
In McCarthy, you’re talking about a player who occasionally flashed the potential of a league-average (or somewhat better) innings eater in his four years in Texas, but was on the hill so infrequently and was so often betrayed by out-of-sync mechanics and lingering injuries that it was very easy to miss the potential altogether if you weren’t paying close attention. Aside from a severe case of right forearm inflammation that effectively scrapped his 2008 campaign, and two separate (and comparatively rare) stress fractures in his right scapula in 2007 and 2009, his delivery has undergone multiple overhauls in largely unsuccessful attempts to prevent further injury, and he has logged only 229 innings between all levels of pro ball in the last three years. This could be the year he finally puts it together with 100-150 solid-average innings, but I more closely subscribe to the theory that he’s all but broken beyond repair, or so worn down by the trials and tribulations of his post-White Sox career that he’ll be of little use in a starting capacity.
Runner-Up: You could have constructed a lukewarm case for Brett Anderson above on the basis of last year’s semi-alarming elbow problems (requiring 91 total disabled-list days), but his collection of red flags can’t even begin to compare to McCarthy’s.
The blessing (or curse, depending on your mindset) of lowered expectations stemming from your team being projected for a sub-.500 record is that things like an up-for-grabs fifth-starter slot lose significance when juxtaposed against the farm system, and the young blood that is supposed to eventually reverse all the losing. However, when one of the guys gunning for that spot (Erik Bedard) is a formerly excellent southpaw who (a) claims he’s finally past the physical issues that led to his downfall and (b) could conceivably bring back some amount of farm-bolstering talent in a midseason deal if he can establish his health and effectiveness, that’s something that gets you to sit up and take notice.
Much like the pitcher featured prominently below, Bedard has missed the better part of two consecutive seasons with labrum problems (a debridement and tear, specifically) and is now reporting pain-free, unrestricted throwing. Unlike the pitcher below, however, the necessity of Bedard faring well in 2011 is minimal to non-existent; he could generate a few additional marginal wins for Seattle if everything goes right and recoup some prospects, but the club’s playoff hopes are already iffy enough that he’s not going to be a difference-maker. Considering the history he’s trying to overcome and the work yet left to be done, maybe the depressed expectations aren’t such a terrible thing.
Runner-Up: Doug Fister’s mid-2010 shoulder fatigue is good cause for alarm, right? In all seriousness, there isn’t a standout runner-up here in my view, unless you really want to try and extrapolate something from the Fister injury that probably isn’t there to extrapolate.
Stop everything down for a moment, close your eyes, and imagine what your reaction would be if your favorite team had won its respective league’s championship, and then proceeded to replace perhaps the most fantastic pitcher to ever don that team’s uniform and its post-season hero (Cliff Lee) with a guy who had logged exactly four innings in the last two years (Brandon Webb). A real buzzkill, right? Obviously, this is a somewhat incomplete portrayal of the situation, because there were significant financial issues in play that prevented the Rangers from committing any further resources to their pursuit of Lee, but no matter how Texas ended up here, the reality of the situation is that they need Webb to be at least serviceable, and to pile up a decent number of innings.
The good news is that up to this point, Webb has been medically cleared to pitch by team physician Dr. Keith Meister (who personally performed the surgery to repair his frayed right labrum, and helped put the Rangers’ minds at ease as they contemplated signing him), is steadily rebuilding his arm strength in spring camp, and appears likely to make a Cactus League start in the not-so-distant future. The bad is that we can never be definitively sure if/when a rehabbing pitcher has fully cleared the danger zone, nor can we know immediately if his pure stuff or control or mechanics or mentality will ever be even partially restored to their previous Cy Young-caliber states. In the Rangers’ case, there’s little time for a slow-paced return to prominence—if he can finally produce in 2012, but isn’t quite there yet in 2011, that does them little good in the present, especially if the younger, talented back-rotation guns like Derek Holland don’t take a meaningful step forward. When you can see anything from 20 to 150 innings as being a legitimately plausible outcome, that’s scary.
Runner-Up: Tommy Hunter. There are no injury issues here to speak of, but his 2010 strikeout (4.8 K/9) and home-run (1.5 HR/9) rates and overall questionable upside render him a less-than-great fit for the middle of the rotation if a few more things don’t work as hoped.