I must preface this post by stating that the following idea almost certainly will not happen. No, this statement is not meant to be seen as a dig at Mike Matheny, either, as the idea would likely be viewed as too unconventional for even the most creative MLB managers (including one of my favorites in Terry Francona). If you are the type of reader that does not appreciate or enjoy hypotheticals, this post is probably not for you, and I totally respect your decision to read elsewhere today. That being said, it is something I have been thinking about for a while, and given that we are currently in a lull before the hot stove fires up, I figured now was as good of a time as any to present my idea.
Trevor Rosenthal (led by his agent, Scott Boras) was in his first year of arbitration last offseason but avoided the actual arbitration process by agreeing to terms with the Cardinals on a one year, $5.6 million deal. Despite nearly season-long struggles and an extended stint on the disabled list, he will be due a raise on his 2016 contract this offseason. Some may float around the idea of non-tendering the 26-year-old Rosenthal, which, unless the medical staff is hiding something major, is an incredibly silly opinion considering, when healthy, he has some of the most electric stuff on the entire pitching staff.
Thus, Rosenthal will be back in 2017, and I envision a contract of at least $6.5 million, unless of course a multi-year deal is reached prior to arbitration, a favorite method by general manager John Mozeliak (but unlikely in this situation considering Rosenthal would be signing low). Seung Hwan Oh will also be back next year as his 2017 option ($2.75 million) automatically vested in mid-September upon reaching 30 games finished. While I’d like to see Oh used in a similar fashion to the Indians’ Andrew Miller (Alex Crisafulli has more on this topic here), I just do not see it happening. And given how well Oh performed throughout 2016, he will likely be given the traditional closer role back for the 2017 season.
Kevin Siegrist, who is arbitration eligible for the first time, will be back next season. That’s a given. Zach Duke will return to the Cardinals bullpen as he finishes out the final year on a contract he signed with the White Sox. Barring a significant offseason acquisition, the back-end of the bullpen could look essentially the same at the onset of the 2017 season as it did to end 2016 (Duke, Siegrist, Oh).
This brings us to Alex Reyes, back to Rosenthal, and the presumably open (assuming the Cardinals decline Jaime Garcia’s option) fifth spot in the starting rotation. As you may recall, just last week I asked the question on where Reyes should start in 2017. The overwhelming majority said the MLB starting rotation. Considering Reyes’ success at the MLB level and the tireless work he put in during his suspension to build endurance, it is hard to disagree with the majority. However, a point I’d like to reiterate is Reyes is a one-of-a-kind pitching prospect. Pitching prospects of his caliber do not come around often. In fact, the Cardinals haven’t had one like Reyes since Rick Ankiel back in 2000 (not even Carlos Martinez, if we are being honest).
While I trust the organization’s judgment on Reyes’ future workload, I still want them to error on the side of caution, even if his overall body of work from 2016 projects that he is ready for a full-time rotation spot in 2017. In other words, I do not want Reyes to end up in the same situation as we are now seeing with Michael Wacha and his shoulder (for the second time). Sure, you cannot necessarily predict pitcher injuries, and even limited workloads don’t always help, but when you have a roster that allows for such caution, why not utilize it?
With the back-end of the bullpen already solidified, Rosenthal’s perpetual desire to start, and a legitimate caution surrounding one of MLB’s top pitching prospects, I would wholeheartedly endorse the Cardinals getting creative by deploying a tandem for the fifth rotation spot. At the very least to open the 2017 season.
So what exactly do I mean by “tandem,” you ask? Well, it is somewhat complicated to describe because the execution of a tandem largely depends on what happens during each game. If the “starter” is dealing and remaining economical with his pitch count, he may go four, five, or maybe even six innings before being replaced by his tandem mate. If the “starter” is struggling, his outing may be over after only two innings. With both Reyes and Rosenthal throwing right-handed, opposing lineups won’t play too much of a role in who “starts” a given game. Instead, Matheny can either alternate who “starts” every fifth day or group “starts” together based on one starter being sharper than the other of late.
So, with effectively six pitchers designated for the starting rotation, what happens to the bullpen, then? Won’t it be undermanned and the subsequent heavy workload put on the remaining members of the bullpen eventually catch up to them come October? I understand that worry and will now do my best to provide a possible solution.
In between starts, starting pitchers throw at least one regular bullpen (or side session), however you choose to name it. Remember, these are starting pitchers that could have thrown as many as 125 pitches just a few days prior. Through the tandem process, neither Reyes nor Rosenthal will have thrown anywhere near that amount of pitches in their most recent outing. Instead of throwing a bullpen (or side session), Rosenthal and Reyes can throw these sessions (one to two innings) in an actual game in between “starts” — helping, at least partially, fill the void left by one not being a full-time member of the bullpen.
A secondary benefit, for as cynical as it may sound, from the tandem process is having an arm primed and ready to go when the inevitable happens, and one of the top four starting pitchers lands on the disabled list, or is consistently ineffective. Instead of having to use Memphis for the “stretching out” process, both tandem pitchers will already be able to jump in and increase their workload as each will have thrown anywhere between 50-70 pitches per outing up to that point.
I will end this post just as I started, openly admitting that this idea will almost certainly never happen. However, just imagine being an opposing team knowing that you are about to face two pitchers, back-to-back, each throwing near 100 MPH, with devastating changeups, and developing breaking balls. For the Cardinals, that sounds like a whole lot of fun. For opponents, not so much. Not only is the idea fun, but it makes sense as it preserves the arm of a 22-year-old Reyes and utilizes Rosenthal in a way that can be much more valuable to the team than being limited to the “eighth-inning” guy.