Who will make the club’s starting rotation? It’s a perennial conversation of spring training. But just like the batting order, who gets labeled “the closer” and so many other debates of yore, I think it’s time to let this one go.
It just doesn’t matter that much who’s in the starting rotation coming out of spring.
To some degree, this is an ongoing evolution of how teams organize their pitching staffs. But it is also more true than ever coming out of the shortened pandemic season.
As a model, I always look to the Dodgers. In 2019, the Dodgers had only one pitcher who made 30 starts. The Cardinals had four. The Dodgers top 5 starters started 128 of their games that season. For the Cardinals, they made 152. If you go back to 2017, it’s even more striking. The Dodgers had not a single pitcher start more than 27 games. The Cardinals had three start more than 30. The Dodgers had only one pitcher throw more than 152 innings. The Cardinals had four.
2017 is significant because that was the season the league implemented the 10-day Injured List, which the Dodgers utilized repeatedly to rest pitchers and shuttle guys into and out of the staff. That rule was revised away before the 2019 season, and frankly following the COVID weirdness, I’m not clear how it will work this season.
The point is, smart teams like the Dodgers have long been pushing the rules as far as they could to essentially implement Load Management, as it’s commonly called in the NBA.
Once upon a time, the benchmark starting pitchers were expected to strive for was 200 innings. Fewer and fewer pitchers hit that mark, and the consensus is growing that even those pitchers who could throw that many innings might pitch better and certainly remain more healthy if they threw 175, 150, etc.
At that point, it’s just simple math that the same rotation of five guys is not going to get a team through an entire season. And why should they? It’s been the case forever that most clubs have 3-4 guys who clearly profile as STARTING PITCHERS. So why even go through the charade of auditioning the best of the rest during spring training, anoint one or two into the kingdom of “the rotation,” and foist 200 innings on them?
To quote The Mandalorian, “this is the way.” The league as a whole has been moving in this direction for years, but 2021 should push this to the extreme.
As Ben Lindbergh noted, last season saw a real spike in pitcher injuries that most attribute to the unusual, herky-jerky structure of the 2020 season. Pitchers were thrown drastically out of their routine, and because that routine is largely designed to build strength and avoid injuries, injuries ensued.
It’s long been the case that pitchers coming of a season of diminished workload would be eased back up. Every pitcher in the world had a diminished workload last season.
Some teams have admitted that individual pitchers will be working within an innings cap, as the Cardinals did with Alex Reyes. But whether spoken or unspoken, we should assume that all pitchers will be on some kind of an innings cap this year.
Lance Lynn led all MLB pitchers with 84 IP in 2020. Do you really believe teams are going to ask these guys to jump from <80 innings to 200?
Taking all of this context and focusing it on the Cardinals, it really doesn’t matter who the team names to its “starting rotation” on April 1. Will John Gant get a chance to start? Almost certainly he will. Will Daniel Ponce de Leon get another shot to show he can be a starter? I’d lay heavy odds that he will. Johan Oviedo and Jake Woodford each started games last year. I wouldn’t be surprised if they do so again.
And even for Alex Reyes, who we’ve been told will be limited to about 100 innings through the season... we really don’t know how those innings will be divided up. They have said he will begin the year in the bullpen, and frankly that makes a lot of sense. Why waste any of those 100 innings in the minor leagues?
Assuming he remains healthy and effective, I would expect Reyes to remain in the bullpen but then transition into a starting role for the very end of the regular season and potential postseason. That seems like the best way to get maximum leverage out of those 100 innings. Who cares about labels like “starter” and “closer?” 100 high-quality innings from Reyes will be just as valuable if they come in two-inning bursts in the middle innings as if they came in a limited number of starts.
As Blake Newberry wrote earlier this week, the Cardinals have a lot of potential rotation depth - and that’s a good thing. They will use all of it.
The Cardinals will not have five starting pitchers this season. They will have eight, nine, ten... maybe even more starters. It won’t be only as the result of injury - as it was in the past. It will be by design. All of these guys will pitch meaningful innings in the majors this season, and it’s likely that many of those innings will come at the start of games.