Contenders Without Enough Arms

We all know that depth is important for teams across sports, and with the largest amount of games to fill, it is of paramount importance for baseball teams. In a nutshell: over the course of six months and 162 games, stuff happens. This is especially true when it comes to starting pitchers. It’s rare that a team makes it through a season with its intended rotation intact.

Last month, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wrote that, on average, each team needed 32 starts from starting pitchers who weren’t among the five most-frequent starters. In essence, what this means is that teams need to have quality options at the sixth and seventh spots in their rotation. It is in this area that the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics and Atlanta Braves may come up a little short this season.

All three supposed contenders face injury concerns with the front five members of their rotation, and it doesn’t get much prettier after the front five. Let’s take a closer look.

Los Angeles Angels
For a lot of teams, they can at least feel confident about the front five members of the rotation. Not so for the Angels. The Halos are shaping up as a bona fide contender, but if they slip up, it will likely be the rotation’s fault, and there are holes to poke in nearly every member of the rotation.

Nominal ace Jered Weaver saw his velocity dip into the mid-80s last season, and his ERA and FIP took turns for the worse. That is far from an encouraging trend. Tyler Skaggs is a rookie who saw his stock drop last year, Garrett Richards has never started 20 games in a season and fifth-starter Joe Blanton was terrible last season. C.J. Wilson was the only member of the group to make 30 starts last season, which means that sixth starter Hector Santiago is going to be counted on for a lot of innings, and there is a pretty good chance that the seventh man up is going to see plenty of action as well. And therein lies the problem.

If you look at the depth chart, you see that the three men vying for that spot are Matt Shoemaker, Michael Roth and Mark Mulder. Yes, that Mark Mulder, the same one who hasn’t tossed a major league inning since 2008. The last time Mulder was an effective pitcher was 2005, and the last time he was an elite pitcher was 2003 — literally more than a decade ago. So while it’s a great story, the odds on his comeback are long, and the fact that he is a legitimate option is scary.

Mulder has become a legit option because the team’s farm system has flatlined. Roth, the team’s ninth-round pick in the 2012 draft, only tossed 27 innings in the minors before being plugged into the big league team last April. He ended up having a few good outings in relief last season, but in his one start he retired just 10 of the 18 batters he faced, and five of the ones he didn’t retire had scored before the fourth inning concluded.

Either way, it’s fair to say that his development has been a little stunted, and he could use a full season at Triple-A to develop properly. He probably won’t get it, but if he does, it’s because the team uses a combination of Mulder and Shoemaker after Santiago. Shoemaker made his major league debut last season at the age of 26, and tossed five shutout innings in his debut. He spent the majority of last season repeating Triple-A, and while he did better, he is also way past the point where he can be considered a prospect.

Speaking of prospects, none of the team’s top prospects are coming to help. Most are at low levels, and since Keith Law recently ranked the farm system 29th, none of them would really be saviors even if they were ready.

The Angels were reportedly interested in Matt Garza, but he signed with Milwaukee. It’s unlikely Los Angeles will want a reunion with Ervin Santana, and there is no indication the Halos have been in discussions with Ubaldo Jimenez or A.J. Burnett, the other “big” free-agent pitchers remaining.

Oakland Athletics
The A’s have similar issues with their expected five-man rotation. While Jarrod Parker’s velocity loss isn’t as extreme as Weaver’s, Parker has seen his velocity drop in each of his past two seasons. Scott Kazmir made 29 starts last season, but before that he had just one major league start in the previous two seasons, so it’s fair to wonder if he’ll hold up this season. And Sonny Gray is a rookie, though one with perhaps more promise than Skaggs. If the five of them hold up and perform, their concerns won’t be as many as will Anaheim’s, but there is still not a lot going on behind them.

Sixth starter Tommy Milone lost his spot in the rotation last season to Gray because he wasn’t as good as the other five guys, and while he does have experience, he also has a problem coughing up homers, even in spacious Coliseum. Pencil him as a league average hurler in the sixth spot, with a high beta from start to start — last season, he allowed one run in six of his starts, and five or more in seven others. Trick or treat.

Tricks are what can mostly be expected behind him. The A’s are hoping Drew Pomeranz can find the mojo that made him the fifth overall pick of the 2010 draft, but after three seasons of disappointing results in Colorado, his projections are modest at best. Josh Lindblom pops up on the depth chart as well, but he has mostly been a reliever in his career, and not a good one at that. It’s hard to see him contributing in a positive manner in the starting rotation.

Finally, there’s Andrew Werner, who got a cup of coffee as a 25-year-old with the Padres in 2012. His results were lackluster, and he spent all of last season in Triple-A with the Sacramento River Cats where he posted a 5.78 ERA.

And like the Angels, the A’s have precious little prospect help on the way. Their system doesn’t rank well overall — Law ranked it 26th — and like the Angels, most of the top pitching prospects have not yet seen Double-A action.

Atlanta Braves
The Braves make it three-for-three in injury concerns for starters. Brandon Beachy made just five starts last year, just 18 the year before and has never made 30 starts in a single season at the major league level. Alex Wood only has 11 major league starts under his belt, and Law is on record as saying that Wood’s funky arm action probably means he is best served as a reliever, so the jury is certainly out on whether he holds up over the course of 200 innings. Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran have just one 200-inning season between them, which means there isn’t an established workhorse in this mix.

The injury concerns don’t stop there, of course. The team signed Gavin Floyd to bolster the rotation’s depth, but he is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and in the best-case scenario won’t be back in the majors until May. Prospect J.R. Graham battled shoulder woes last year, which limited him to just 35 2/3 innings pitched at Double-A. He was ranked among Law’s top 100 prospects a year ago, but fell off the list this year and Law believes the bullpen could be in his future.

Other options include Yunesky Maya, who remains a cautionary tale for teams signing Cuban players. Heading into his age-32 season, Maya has just 10 major league starts under his belt. That is more than David Hale has. Hale popped up with Atlanta in time to make two starts last year, but if his 2014 projections are any indication — ZiPS has the 26-year-old down for a 5.00+ ERA and FIP — he probably won’t make many more.

The team’s best bet may once again be the seemingly ageless Freddy Garcia, but there are only so many rabbits that the journeyman will be able to pull out of his hat. He did an admirable job in Game 4 of the National League Division Series for Atlanta last year, but over the past two seasons, he has posted a 4.84 ERA, and it is doubtful that he will do any better this year.

Teams need to stockpile as much quality depth as possible, but these three teams not only lack that quality depth in their proverbial sixth, seventh and eighth spots, but they also have plenty of question marks for spots one through five. If these three clubs fall short of the playoffs, the lack of starting pitching depth will likely be the reason why.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

3 Responses to “Contenders Without Enough Arms”

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  1. Caveman Jones says:

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  2. Carlisle says:

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  3. pags140 says:

    i pictured something very different when i first read the title