Last season the Brewers went into spring training with eight pitchers considered contenders for the starting rotation. The talk was all about who makes it and with whom you must part ways. Times were good.
This year all the talk is about whether the Brewers can afford to sign another starter. Or more accurately, whether they can afford not to. They go into the season with only two true veteran starters and one of those two on the fringe of acceptability. The fifth starter, Seth McClung, really isn't a starter and really never was. The top two in the rotation are very young and very susceptible to being overworked. It is becoming apparent that the payroll will not support another MLB caliber pitcher. What's a team to do?
The In-Between Hops Plan:
- A four man rotation: Gallardo, Parra, Bush, and Suppan
- Limit the starters to 5 IP per start - no exceptions
- Pick 3 relievers - Villanueva, McClung, and Riske would probably do - to pitch three inning stints - the 6th through 8th innings of every game - on a regular rotation
- A closer for the 9th - Hoffman
- Four or five extra relievers for various miscellaneous and mop-up roles
Item 2: They key to avoiding overwork - and this is key - would be to limit the starters to five innings per start; no if's, and's or but's. You take them out even if they're throwing a no-hitter. This is about the season; not about a single game. They're probably going to give up a hit next inning anyway. You get them out of the game while there's still some gas in the tank rather than wait until they run dry. You do it with your car. You do it with your starting pitchers. It will make for a shorter recovery period for their next start in four days.
There are 162 games in a season. Suppose that in two of those games, because of double headers or whatever, you use a spot starter. That leaves 160 games, divided four ways - 40 starts each. With a strict five inning limit, the cap on the number of innings from any starter would be 200. Most likely it would be less because they won't always make it to the fifth, will miss a start here or there, or the schedule dictates that you use a spot starter more than twice. That brings them all in around 180 innings; probably a decent workload.
The starters will still get most of their wins - (valuable things to have when salary negotiation time come around) - because they are pitching through the fifth inning. The couple they'd lose by leaving games early would be made up for by the eight extra starts each would get.
Item 3: This strategy would create a new role for three relievers. They would each pitch (or hope to pitch) a three inning stint every third day on a regular rotating schedule. They would know which days they are pitching and could prepare for the games both mentally and physically in much the same way a starter would. Because they would each only pitch in one game of a three-game series, the opposition would not have the luxury of seeing them twice. (And in fact, would have to scout and prepare for seeing a significant number of innings from six different pitchers, not just three.) Three innings every third day works out to 162 innings on the season at most. Probably 120-130 would be realistic. Seth McClung and Carlos Villanueva seem fully suited for a role like this. This role could also be used as a transition to and from the starting rotation or to and from the bottom of the bullpen. I'm thinking Chris Capuano here. Jeff Suppan if he struggles. Mitch Stetter if he pitches well.
Item 4: No change in the closer's role. You still have Hoffman for the ninth.
Item 5: These are your mop up guys. You bring them in in the 4th or 5th if the starter struggles, in the 7th or 8th if the middle relievers struggle, or at the end of the game to clean up a mess.
The beauty of this plan is that every pitcher on the staff would have a clearly defined role. You would have an automatic system to limit Gallardo's and Parra's innings, yet get eight extra starts out of each of them. The workloads of the relievers would be spaced out much more evenly over the course of the season. You would have three pitchers at the ready to jump into the starter's role if needed with very little change in preparation or workload, and four pitchers at the ready to jump into one of the middle relief roles. There would be a lot less throwing up in the bullpen (old Jerry Coleman joke). With clearly defined roles, there would be very few wasted warm-ups. The games would go faster with fewer pitching changes. Finally there's economics. An extra middle reliever to fill the spot opposite McClung and Villanueva would costs much less than an extra starter. Everybody wins.