The Quagmire of Starting Rotation Depth

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I seem to be getting a lot of inspiration lately from Fangraphs. If you’re not going there every day to read what’s up, then you’re missing out!

 

 

For today’s article, I’m going to look at the idea of starting rotation depth and how the Toronto Blue Jays are equipped to handle things right now and what happens if they sign two big money free agents (keep reading and you’ll see why I’m talking about this).

 

First, to Fangraphs! The article in question is an interesting piece by Jeff Sullivan called Revisiting the Myth of the Five-Man Rotation. Why does Sullivan call the five-man rotation a myth? Because very few teams can actually get through a season with five starting pitchers. He cites the 2013 Tigers as one of the few exceptions to the rule where 156 games were starting by their “Starting Five.” By contrast, the Blue Jays had only 111 games started by their “Starting Five” (and to make the numbers look better, I’m treating J.A. Happ as a member of the “Starting Five” rather than Ricky Romero).

 

Sullivan also notes that it can be tricky to keep big league quality depth for the #6 (or #7, #8 or #9) spot because these depth players, unless you’re willing to use a bullpen spot for them, are going to have to be in the minors. An extra level of complications arises when it comes to stashing players in the minors because of options, veteran players who can refuse assignments, waivers processes and, of course, salary considerations.

 

This brings me to a Tweet I saw yesterday from the Blue Jays’ venerable TV analyst, Gregg Zaun. Zaun first tweeted a link to an article by Noah Jarosh on SB Nation saying that the Blue Jays are among the leading candidates to sign one of Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez (Jarosh and other writers have been jumping all over this thanks to something that Ken Rosenthal wrote). He then tweeted this little bit of lunacy:

Why do I call this seemingly innocuous tweet “lunacy?” Two reasons.

 

Reason #1: Contradicting Statements

 

Zaun’s tweet makes two contradicting statements that make sense only when taken by themselves. The subtext of the first statement (signing both Jimenez and Santana) is that the Blue Jays will need two more good starting pitchers to get themselves out of last place the AL East. Fair enough. I firmly believe that he’s right on this. The second statement, however sane on its own, doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny when you put it along with the first.

 

Yes, competition for jobs is a good thing but if the Blue Jays signed both Santana and Jimenez, they would have a plethora of major league starting pitching who were commanding significant salaries. I don’t want to talk too much about the salaries just yet because I’m getting there in the next section but here’s what you would have on the mound in 2014 by signing both Santana and Jimenez:

 

R.A. Dickey: $12 million
Mark Buehrle: $18 million
Ubaldo Jimenez: $17 million (or so)
Ervin Santana: $15 million (or so)
Brandon Morrow: $8 million

 

When you have four pitchers making eight figures and a fifth who, arguably, has the best stuff on the team, where’s the competition? By the virtue of their salaries and the commitment that the team has made to them, they’re going to be taking the mound for their scheduled starts every time they’re healthy. Period. If Josh Johnson wasn’t injured at the end of the year last year, you can better believe that the Jays would parade that $13 million salary out to the mound every fifth day. If Morrow stays healthy, do you think that he’s going to be pushed out of his job as a starter by Todd Redmond?

 

Sure, you could trade someone like Buehrle and then you’ll have a little bit of competition for the #5 spot but I think Zaun’s point is that the only way that the Jays are going to turn around their pitching woes is to keep all of the current starters and add the two aforementioned free agents.

 

Therefore, the crux of the first part of my two-part critique of Gregg Zaun faulty logic (Zaugic?) is the fact that when you’re bringing in free agent pitchers and you have a ton of high-priced talent on the rotation, unless they’re injured, those guys are going to have to pitch every fifth day. That’s not competition.

 

Reason #2: No Context

 

This is where we’re going to tie it all together. Let’s say that the Blue Jays do decide to add both Santana and Jimenez and add $32 million (on the low side) to their payroll. The Blue Jays will now have about $165 million in payroll.

 

That’s not so bad. I’m estimating that the payroll goes to about $150 million this year so, $15 million here, $15 million there . . . not so much of a big deal, right?

 

In this hypothetical scenario, the Blue Jays are adding all of this starting rotation depth but where do you put it? In addition to the five guys mentioned above, we now have Todd Redmond, Esmil Rogers, J.A. Happ and Ricky Romero on the outside looking in. Like Jeff Sullivan wrote, the only place to put any extra guys that the Blue Jays would have is in the minors. The Blue Jays’ bullpen is already overflowing with guys who have no options left and are still on the bubble to even make the team (Luis Perez, Dustin McGowan, Esmil Rogers, Jeremy Jeffress). You can’t put any of the starters in the bullpen without losing someone else.

 

Barring multiple trades, the Blue Jays have three starters with extensive major league experience and earning major league paycheques who would have to go to the minors. J.A. Happ will be earning $5.2 million, Ricky Romero will be earning $7.5 million and Esmil Rogers is expected to earn about $1 million after he signs his contract (he’s arbitration eligible). There, immediately, is $13.7 million dollars in payroll that would be wasted in the minors, to say nothing for the disappointment on the players’ parts in not making the major league club. Rogers is out of options and would either have to be traded or lost on waivers. Remember that Rogers actually made the third most starts for the Blue Jays in 2013.

 

Sean Nolin
Sean Nolin

 

I’m not even including players like Todd Redmond, Sean Nolin and Marcus Stroman whom the Blue Jays can stash in the minors with no worries about salary or waivers.

 

I would think that Blue Jays’ management doesn’t feel that wasting $13 million dollars on players in the minors constitutes effective management (despite the sunk cost into Ricky Romero already). I mean, that’s governmental-scale money wasting.

 

This is what really bugs me about Zaun’s statement. It ignores reality. He’s just saying things to get people riled up. There’s no context for anything else. Sure, we can say “trade Buehrle” or “trade Happ” or “trade Rogers” but the reality of the matter is that it’s not so easy. Sure, every team wants to have more depth in pitching and Happ has a fairly cost-effective contract but, as we’ve see from the few trades have gone on this offseason, it’s very difficult to get value for pitchers, even very good ones like Doug Fister who is much better than any of the three problematic guys we’re talking about. If the Tigers get a decent pitching prospect, a utility infielder and a lefty bullpen arm for Doug Fister, what do the Blue Jays get for J.A. Happ?

 

Yes, competition is good but having five pitchers to whom you’ve made significant dollar commitments and, by doing so, significant investments in how much they’re going to play basically ensures NO competition. And by doing that, you’re giving yourself a problem by having pitchers making significant money that you will have to trade and likely receive less than equal value in return. The choice is to trade the pitcher for a couple of middling prospects or stash him in the minors.

 

Marcus Stroman
Marcus Stroman

 

While you do need depth in the rotation, it can’t be veterans making a lot of money. Guys like Redmond, Nolin and Stroman are exactly the kind of rotation depth you want. Right now, you have the ability to go with Dickey, Morrow, Buehrle and one new guy and still be able to keep Rogers and Happ (although you’ll likely lose one of the guys in the bullpen).

 

One pitcher adds the right kind of depth and creates competition for that fifth spot which is good. Adding two pitchers creates no competition and a potential quagmire.

  • bballgordie

    If Buerhle could be traded for a 2nd baseman, then signing both would be the way to go. No idea if this could be done, but it was floated as an idea earlier in the off season.

    • Jay Blue

      Trading Buehrle is certainly an option. Again, I’m starting to really worry how difficult it is to get quality back for just about anyone these days but his contract isn’t nearly as unmovable as once thought. There was an interesting article from earlier in the offseason (I can’t quite remember where I saw it) that said about as much — I think it came out right after the Fielder for Kinsler trade.

      But again, I think that Zaun’s point was that he wanted to add both pitcher rather than add two and subtract one. I agree that adding one established pitcher (although, I still think that “established” pitchers are overrated — see Josh Johnson) is the right balance to open one spot in the rotation for a young pitcher to come up and surprise people.

      I think there is a good chance that the Jays get a Sonny Gray/Michael Wacha type performance this year from someone like Marcus Stroman.