Anyone who’s been watching the game of baseball over the past few seasons has become far too aware of the trend teams now take with young pitching – placing them on strict innings limits early in their careers and sticking to that plan. It’s all done for the sake of “protecting a young arm”. It’s sound reasoning but, in practice, it doesn’t always make sense for the betterment of the team.
In most situations, the team will decide on an innings limit for a young pitcher prior to the start of the season. Once that player begins to approach the cutoff point, the team will start to manage his starts a little more cautiously – pulling him after just 5.0 innings rather than letting him work deeper into games, etc. Ultimately the innings limit is reached and the player is simply shut down for the remainder of the season. The Nationals did this with Jordan Zimmerman this past season. Once he hit the 160.0 innings limit his season was done. This was in late August.
The problem with this trend, in my opinion, is the management of the pitcher’s innings. While I understand the concept, I don’t quite grasp the method behind which team’s go about implementing the strategy.
Sure, games in April and games in August are weighted the same when it comes to any team’s final win-loss record. But there is something to be said about the differences between making a start in the third week of the season, when teams are still finding their identities, as opposed to making a start with three weeks to go, when teams are fighting to make the playoffs. Teams focus on utilizing these players from the start of the season and are forced to shut them down early. It happens year in and year out.
But, what if teams were to make a simple adjustment to this approach? What if teams took it easy on these young pitchers saddled with an innings limit at the onset of the season rather than at the end?
First, the biggest question that must be addressed is who starts those games in April. Most teams will spend a portion of Spring Training working through a competition for the starting rotation – as we rarely see a team start the Spring with their five man rotation set in stone and healthy – so one proposal could simply be to let one of those candidates make some early season starts once things actually count.
Under most circumstances this wouldn’t be such a poor decision. The player would get an opportunity to prove himself. If he performs well then either he’ll have earned a role on the team or made himself attractive on the trade market to another organization. If he doesn’t perform, he can simply be optioned to the minor leagues (presuming the player in question has options remaining, of course) or released altogether. It seems like an easy solution. But there’s one major problem to the equation: the 25-man roster.
The player on an innings limit, for the sake of argument going forward we’ll just use Stephen Strasburg here since we know he’ll be facing one this coming season, still must be on the 25-man roster at the start of the season unless he is either injured or has options remaining. In all likelihood, the organization wouldn’t be concerned yet about an innings limit if Strasburg were already on the DL, they’d be far more focused on getting him healthy first, so we can scratch that possibility out. And while he does have options remaining, does the team really want to waste one of them just for the sake of having the arm available at the end of the season? Presumably if the innings limit is going to be that strictly enforced then the organization wouldn’t permit Strasburg from accumulating innings in the minor leagues at the start of the season. So there goes our Plan B. There’s no sense in burning an option for him to just sit around.
Teams don’t have the roster flexibility in the season’s first month to carry an extra arm just so that they can wait before letting a Strasburg make his first start. With a little creativity such a move could be possible. It would entail managing with a roster of just 24 players each and every game until Strasburg is “allowed” to pitch though. It just wouldn’t make sense.
Over at Call to the Pen, Blaine Blontz addressed the pending innings limit for Strasburg just yesterday. With some insight provided by Ben Goessling of MASN Sports, the conclusion ultimately is that Strasburg will likely see an innings limit right in the same neighborhood of that which Zimmerman had this past season – 160 innings. There also likely won’t be much wiggle room to extend it.
If we take a look at Zimmerman’s 2011 season as an example, it would be highly likely that Strasburg would reach his innings limit sometime in early to mid August. Zimmerman made 4 starts in April (24.1 IP), 5 in May (30.2 IP), 6 in June (42.1 IP), 5 in July (30.0 IP), and 5 in August (28.2 IP). He was relatively consistent and most importantly, relatively healthy. Strasburg is certainly capable of handling the same workload. Zimmerman was once viewed as a possible leader of the staff but Strasburg has seemingly replaced atop that point of the Washington depth charts. Working without an innings limit should free Zimmerman up for a breakout 2012 season.
Ultimately though, the question still remains with regards to what the Nationals will do once Strasburg reaches his innings limit. If things bounce in the right direction this team could potentially be in contention as we near the later parts of the summer. This is by no means a guarantee, of course, but we can’t rule the possibility out either. If Strasburg is the team’s best pitcher can they really sustain losing him for the rest of the season?
There is no easy answer to the equation. However, the path the Nationals front office takes this offseason could largely dictate how prepared for the situation this team might be. The starting rotation is one area which will need to be addressed in the coming weeks and months. Beyond Strasburg and Zimmerman it would seem likely that some combination of John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, Tom Milone, Brad Peacock, and Tom Gorzelanny could fill out the starting rotation. There could be other changes to the potential candidate pool though, with potential free agent signings or trades that could take place between now and the start of the season. None of these players are sure things to still be a member of the organization, thought I wouldn’t expect any of them traded unless it was as part of a package to fill a larger need.
If the team opts for a big free agent contract – we’ll discuss potential free agent options separately – that would likely push a number of these options out of the equation. Some, such as Milone and Peacock, could spend additional time in Triple-A. As the season passes the team is certain to need starting pitching depth – because every team needs it each and every year – so the pair of young pitchers will be ready options when the time comes. They’d also be options once Strasburg is ultimately shut down.
However, if the team chooses to spend their money elsewhere this would have a different effect on the rotation. The aforementioned pool of players would be relied upon more early on. Barring injuries and ineffectiveness there would be a fair amount of depth but once again, that’s no sure thing. Even if they earn a spot in the rotation in the Spring, young players such as Milone and Peacock might also face adjusted innings limits.
The organization will end up making a firm decision on what direction they want to approach the starting rotation from during this offseason. It’s tough to say what direction they will take but it is important that they consider contingencies once Strasburg is shut down in August. If this team is in contention, will they have enough depth to sustain it? We just have to hope that we’re not sitting here one year from now wondering what could have been had they just let the kid pitch.