Peter Gammons: Assembling a pitching staff for 2018

The National League Championship Series was barely over and the Dodgers in the World Series when Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Joe Maddon began rethinking the way they develop pitching.

They hired Jim Hickey, Maddon’s former pitching coach in Tampa Bay. When the new Marlins ownership fired all of Jeffrey Loria’s baseball hirings, former Pirates (and Miami) pitching coordinator Jim Benedict was grabbed by the Cubs.

And 13 months after one of the great World Series celebrations of our lifetime, Epstein and Hoyer began their restructuring of the pitching staff, which over the previous three seasons had the best starters’ earned run average in the National League. It was clear Jake Arrieta was not returning, not for the Max Scherzer deal Arrieta and Scott Boras believed he deserved. John Lackey wasn’t coming back. They were not going back to Wade Davis at the kind of deal he received from Colorado.

Never did the Chicago front office make excuses for the development of pitching in their system. Both Epstein and Hoyer declared “we have to do better,” although from the outset of the rebuild of this passionate franchise the emphasis was on developing positional players, because star positional players seldom get to free agency, and finding pitching.

They won their 2016 World Series because they’d signed Jon Lester and Lackey, used astute professional scouting to get Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks at a local Job Lot store and traded one of the best prospects in the game for Aroldis Chapman, for a parade.

Since then, they’ve traded another of the sport’s best prospects for Jose Quintana. They’ve signed Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood and (for 2019) Drew Smyly, and have Mike Montgomery, for whom they traded in ’16, as a swing man.

In lieu of Davis, they signed Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek and can mix and develop a bullpen with Morrow, C.J. Edwards and Justin Wilson in back of Cishek, Pedro Strop, Brian Duensing, Justin Grimm and Montgomery, as well as whomever they develop, like a Dillon Maples.

Then, as the season unfurls, they can monitor the development of their own, such as Adbert Alzolay.

But until or if a Maples or Alzolay or someone else comes along, the Cubs could well open the season without one pitcher developed through the traditional draft-and-develop program.

Across town, we have the White Sox, who are unquestionably one of the most interesting teams to watch this spring. They have not only have they stockpiled a warehouse of highly skilled young position players, but their young pitchers are so close to takeoff points that they could be one of the first “retooling” clubs to have a significant break-forward season.

Pitching coach Don Cooper believes James Shields can lead those young pitchers; Shields has worked diligently on altering his arm angle and stuff, and, remember, crosstown Joe Maddon has always maintained that Shields’ leadership was the most important factor in the Rays rise from the bottom to the 2008 World Series.

Carlos Rodon has just started his throwing program following surgery and is unlikely to open the season, but Cooper sees Carson Fullmer, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez at points last September where they were taking off. And they want to see where Kopech and Dane Dunning are at this juncture.

The way starters are developed today, if Fullmer, Giolito and Lopez are ready to throw 140-150 innings, Rodon is ready by June and Shields can give them innings and his experience, the pitching may give them a chance to pull up close to the .500 bar and point forward to 2019.

In today’s game so heavily dependent on carrying 12 pitchers and using relievers in so many leverage positions, 140-150 innings is far more significant than the past. Much was made of Darvish not being a 200 inning horse, but who is? Only 15 pitchers threw 200 innings last season, two threw 210; a decade earlier, 38 threw 200, and 19—from C.C. Sabathia to Bronson Arroyo—threw 210.

So much for that tradition.

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Twenty years ago we would have seen young, high octane young pitchers like Archie Bradley, Josh Hader and Tyler Glasnow go into spring training being groomed to be power starters. And each one of them likely will end up starters, in time, but right now the plan for each is to use spring training to fit into regular season high leverage Andrew Milleresque bullpen roles.

In a sense, this is what the Orioles did in the seventies, developing Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan, 200 game winner Dennis Martinez, Scott McGregor and others.

The Brewers are still looking for a veteran starter. They comp Hader’s ceiling to that of Chris Sale, but even off 47 2/3 innings where he had 12.8 strikeouts per 9 innings they want him in the setup role to Cory Knebel hoping that it will better develop his command.

Glasnow’s ability has long been a favorite of prospect nation, but his major league struggles have entirely been command related, and he is headed to a setup role reminded of Pedro Martinez’s wisdom: when asked if he starts games thinking about throwing a no-hitter, Pedro says, “I always thought about throwing nine one inning no-hitters. I thought about one thing at a time.”

Bradley, who was one of the nation’s best quarterback prospects in high school, took to that role last spring, with a 1.79 earned run average and 79 strikeouts in 73 innings, giving Torey Lovullo flexibility to be used in any inning and against any part of opposing lineups. As this season unfurls, Bradley probably will make the decision for the Diamondbacks on whether his eventual role will be closer or starter.

This trend is further interesting because it not is indicative of the bullpen trend, but the way teams are being more cautious developing young starters. There were only two starting pitchers under 25 who threw 170 innings last season—Zach Davies of the Brewers, Severino of the Yankees.

Then look at a veteran signing like Charlie Morton, who gave the Astros 25 starts with better than a strikeout an inning then came out of the bullpen for four innings and the win in Game 7 of the World Series.

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I find this fascinating: several teams that use Statcast and analytics companies have told those companies’ advisers that they’re considering moving outfielders around to other positions based on the probabilities of individual hitters against individual pitchers. For instance, in some parks with spacious right fields, the Reds could move Billy Hamilton’s speed and range to right field, then go back to center for another batter with different probabilities. File this under the next generation of shifting.

Comments

  1. “File this under the next generation of shifting.”

    God help us. Another challenge for those of us “keeping score at home”.