There are an unusual number of teams with something left to play for when games resume after the All-Star break. In the American League, the White Sox, A’s, and Mariners all should be selling, but it’s not yet even clear that those stragglers have given up. The rest of the league is certainly, unquestionably, in some position to contend for a playoff spot. In the National League, many more teams are out of it, but the Cardinals, Nationals, Dodgers, Cubs, Pirates, Giants, and Mets are all clear contenders. There’s no reason to believe any of them will do anything other than continue pressing toward the postseason.

Well, okay, there is one reason. There’s one clear signal several competitive teams are planning to send as they start their second halves that flies straight into the face of the notion that they take their contending position seriously. That signal is their planned rotations in the games coming out of the break.

The Cubs will send Kyle Hendricks on Friday in Atlanta. The Astros will hand the ball to Colin McHugh. The Pirates plan to start Charlie Morton. We don’t know the identities of many of the starters on the second half’s Opening Day, but already, three contenders are sending no better than their third (and likely their fourth, especially in the cases of the Cubs and Pirates) starters to the mound. There will be one fewer start available to the likes of Jon Lester or Jake Arrieta, Gerrit Cole or A.J. Burnett, Dallas Keuchel or Lance McCullers, at the end of the season, or even in a potential Wild Card Game.

This would have been unthinkable as little as a decade ago, I think, unless a team’s ace was dealing with a nagging injury. The All-Star break has long been a reset button to not only get a team’s rotation aligned and its bullpen rested, but to squeeze an extra game or two out of its best arms. I confess that I don’t like the move away from that paradigm. Since it’s happening, though, here are a few reasons it makes some sense.

Keeping the Odometer Down
The playoffs get longer all the time, as the Giants can certainly attest. Madison Bumgarner broke the all-time record for innings pitched in a single postseason last year, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that someone will break that record again soon. As it becomes increasingly possible for pitchers to have a full 40 innings or more tacked onto their seasonal workload during October, teams are responding by lightening their early-season yoke accordingly.

Some of that is that clubs want to ensure pitchers aren’t out of gas by the time the lights get the hottest. It seems two or three arms have gone dead at the worst possible times for their owners in each of the past few years; Clay Buchholz can tell you all about that.

Another chunk, of course, is the longer-term concern of added marginal injury risk as workload accumulates. Maybe it’s real, and maybe it’s functionally random, but some teams clearly believe in the saving-bullets theory, and don’t want most of their pitchers racking up 250-plus innings in a single year, even if it wins them a World Series.

Round-Table Rotations
There are no more pool-only members in the once-exclusive clubs that are big-league rotations. Everyone has full access, and that means full rights to a rotation spot. The Cubs started Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta in their final two games before the All-Star break, so with Jason Hammel nursing a sore hamstring and no permanent fifth starter right now, it’s Kyle Hendricks’ turn. In the old, hierarchical rotations, Hendricks would be bumped back to at least Sunday, but as things stand, he’s up next.

This, too, is partially about reducing individual workloads. One way to tamp down innings totals at the top end of a pitching staff without saying that’s what one is doing is to create a culture wherein everyone is expected to wait their turn. That also makes for a greater sense of fraternity within the rotation (although it certainly damages the competitive incentive to succeed every time out), and might improve clubhouse chemistry. It would be an interesting thing to hear from players and field staff about, actually. It’s at least plausible.

Keeping Relievers from Getting Rusty
This would have been unimaginable a few years ago, but it’s now not only a major consideration, but one I find compelling, interesting, and probably even valid: Teams probably don’t want their bullpens spending something on the order of a full week on the shelf. It’s a good way to get rusty. More importantly, because relievers are a bigger part of the game and a more effective group of hurlers than they’ve ever been in the past, getting fresh relief aces into a game relatively early might be as effective a strategy for winning a given game as handing the ball to one’s ace, if not an even more effective one.

We’ll have to watch how, at a minimum, the Cubs, Astros, and Pirates use their shaky starters in the first game out of the break. It wouldn’t surprise me to see any of them treated like Tampa Starters, turning the lineup card over once or twice, but never seeing a 19th (or maybe even a 16th) batter in the game. If that’s what the teams are planning, it’s a fairly ingenious idea, and it might just get them an extra win by changing the matchups in their favor at the back end of the weekend series, while also keeping their best starter one start fresher come Game Three of the League Championship Series. The Brewers are sending ace Mike Fiers on Friday night, so if the Pirates win that contest, they’ll have clear legs up on the opposing hurlers in each of the two remaining games in that set.

If these starters are used traditionally, the fact that their management teams have entrusted them with this assignment and set them up to grab some extra innings at the end of the season will be galling and worthy of reprimand. Any club pushing toward the playoffs should eschew conservative strategies like those and simply get its best players in positions to succeed as often as possible. In this case, what looks like a lack of imagination or assertiveness might actually be the opposite.

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Another consideration on "resetting" the rotation: I understand the Mets held back Harvey and deGrom this weekend so they could both face Washington next week.
Just to clarify: Kyle Hendricks has been the Cubs best or second best starter the last 6 weeks.
If that's the logic that led Maddon to slot Hendricks in for Friday, Maddon should be fired. Six weeks of good performance is not a reason for which to elevate a young pitcher with a third starter's track record and a fourth starter's repertoire over three guys with better marks in both columns.
Point taken, but he's hardly "shaky."
If the Cubs keep a strict 5 man rotation and keep in order here on out, then it lines up 1&2 (Arrieta and Lester) to pitch against the Cardinals in both series at the end of the year and also lines up the #2 for the start in the wild card game should that be where the Cubs land.

Sometimes it isn't about resetting the rotation as much as looking ahead to how the rest of the season plays out.