Old habits die hard. Routines developed during one's formative years are even more difficult to snuff out. My formatives years as a baseball fan came during the St. Louis Cardinals era that was headed by general manager Walt Jocketty, Tony La Russa, and Dave Duncan. And so I scan the MLB free-agent pitching market at the outset of every Hot Stove, looking for broken pitchers that might be fixed. Try as I might, I still haven't quite supplanted the Jocketty/La Russa/Duncan Cardinal Way with the John Mozeliak philosophy. This is why I've been so intrigued to see that the big-spending Los Angeles Dodgers have apparently taken the Cardinals' former rotation-building approach to the next level this offseason.
My ideas about roster construction were formed during the decade-plus time period when the Cardinals churned out pennant-contending clubs chock full of veterans under Jocketty's reign. Prospects weren't to be developed; they were assets to be dealt for players with track records. This was particularly true when it came to pitching. The trauma of Rick Ankiel falling apart stood as anecdotal exhibit A in the case proving that there's no such thing as a pitching prospect and prospects will break your heart.
Sure, there was Matt Morris, but he was drafted two years before Ankiel and made his big-league debut before the Cards had even drafted the lefty. Even Morris's reemergence wasn't enough to overcome the leeriness of pitching prospects because, after Ankiel, Morris post-injury was more Duncan reclamation project than homegrown pitching prospect.
The most important factor behind the Cardinals' rotation construction in the Jocketty era was a dearth of pitching prospects skilled enough to ascend to the majors, stick in the rotation, and pitch successfully. The Cardinals typically wouldn't start a pitcher who had been called up from the farm unless things had gone horribly wrong and, even then, it was often as a temporary stopgap until a pitcher with major-league credentials could be acquired via trade. Those fledgling Cardinals that did make starts rarely stuck as members of the rotation.
Whether it was in free agency or by trade, the Cards would regularly target and bring aboard pitchers with something of a sheen of past big-league success. Closer in time to the signing, though, they had oftentimes seen their effectiveness level drop or had sustained an injury. The Cardinals signed these pitchers on the cheap to be members of their starting rotation and asked Duncan to rejuvenate their careers. St. Louis needed these pitchers to be effective while earning a modest salary in order to field a starting rotation and these pitchers needed to be effective in St. Louis to resurrect their careers.
Nowadays, the Cardinals do things a bit differently. Bargain veterans are no longer Plan A, B, and C. Mozeliak and his minions have layered pitching depth upon pitching depth. Homegrown talent is Plan A, though they are willing to adapt as need dictates. Last season at this time, the Cardinals' rotation depth chart went something like (1) Adam Wainwright, (2) Michael Wacha, (3) Lance Lynn, (4) Shelby Miller, (5) Joe Kelly, (6) Carlos Martinez, (7) Tyler Lyons, and (8) Marco Gonzales. Jaime Garcia was a question mark in spring training—hence his exclusion from the top eight of February 2014—but the homegrown lefty nonetheless wound up making seven starts for the Cardinals. St. Louis had drafted and developed seven of the club's top nine starters if we exclude Wainwright, who was drafted by the Braves, acquired by trade as a minor-leaguer, and spent two years in the Cardinals' farm system before joining the major-league club.
When injuries struck, the Cardinals called an audible and reinforced the rotation with veteran innings-eater John Lackey and Justin Masterson. Then, last November, the Cards responded to the death of Oscar Taveras by shipping Miller and Tyrell Jenkins to Atlanta in return for Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden. Even after trading Kelly and Miller, the Cardinals rotation depth chart is once again heavy on homegrown talent: (1) Wainwright, (2) Lynn, (3) Lackey, (4) Wacha, (5) Martinez, (6) Gonzales, (7) Lyons, (8) Tim Cooney. While Garcia is once again a full participant in spring camp, I'm not quite sure where to put him on the depth chart. Not do I know where to stick free-agent signee and non-roster invitee Carlos Villanueva (if anywhere) on the rotation depth chart. Nonetheless, counting the oft-injured southpaw and veteran swingman, seven of the club's top ten pitchers are homegrown.
That isn't the case in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers have taken the Cardinals' rotation-building approach under Jocketty to the next level. The Dodgers are using their vast spending ability to sign high-upside starters with injury histories. They added another such pitcher in the Matt Kemp trade. Here are their offseason acquisitions:
- Brett Anderson. L.A. signed Anderson to a one-year, $10 million pact. Anderson is amazing. He has thrown more than 83 1/3 big-league innings just once since 2010 and that was in 2011. He's never notched more than the 175 1/3 innings he totaled in his rookie season of 2009. But Anderson has 3.73 ERA (91 ERA-) and 3.51 FIP (86 FIP-) over 494 innings in his six-year career. If healthy, he'll be a nice addition.
- Joe Wieland. The righthander threw 27 2/3 innings in 2012. In 2013, Wieland underwent Tommy John surgery. Elbow problems swallowed most of his 2014, too. Wieland spent 165 days on the DL before tossing 11 1/3 innings in September over two starts and two relief appearances. L.A. avoided a salary arbitration hearing with Wieland by signing him to a $590,000 contract.
- Brandon Beachy. The former Brave has had his ulnar collateral ligament replaced twice. The second such procedure is apparently called a "revision." Beachy last pitched in the majors in 2013, before his first Tommy John surgery. The Dodgers signed Beachy to a contract that will pay the righty $2.75 million in 2015, with a club option worth between $3 million and $6 million, with the value set by the number of games he starts in 2014. Per the indispensable Cot's Baseball Contracts, the option's price tag increases $500,000 for each of the following games-started benchmarks: 1, 5, 10, 15, 18, 21.
- Brandon McCarthy. While McCarthy does not have a DL stint in his recent history, the righty has experienced a rare shoulder condition similar to the one that inflicted Wacha a year ago. 2014 was the first time McCarthy reached the 30-start and 200-inning thresholds (his previous MLB career highs were 25 and 170 2/3, in 2011). This is primarily because McCarthy's right shoulder has landed him on the DL multiple times—most recently in 2012. L.A. saw fit to agree to pay him $48 million over the next four years.
L.A. is paying McCarthy to be a 30-game starter in 2015 and beyond. During the post-signing presser, general manager Farhan Zaidi stated they signed McCarthy to the deal they did because of the market for the righty, his FIP, and a changed workout regimen that resulted in less stress on his shoulder. However, they aren't counting on any one of Anderson, Wieland, or Beachy making the rotation and staying healthy all year. Rather, the Dodgers are betting betting that one of them will be healthy enough to start in 2014.
L.A.'s rotation depth chart is heavy on injury question marks: (1) Clayton Kershaw (homegrown, (2) Zach Greinke (free agent), (3) Hyun-Jin Ryu (free agent), (4) McCarthy (free agent), (5) Anderson (free agent), (6) Beachy (free agent), (7) Wieland (trade), (8) Zach Lee (homegrown), and (9) Carlos Frias (homegrown). Lee is a top-100 prospect according to Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com and spent all of 2014 in Triple-A, but is nonetheless not Plan A. He's more like Plan C or D.
The Dodgers are the anti-Cardinals. This is weird to say since they have taken the Cardinals' former approach to rotation construction to the next level, thanks in no small part to their financial resources. Though the two clubs have utilized different methods to construct their rotations, they very well may meet for the third straight October.