One of my favorite things about how the M’s have handled this off-season is the willingness to accept uncertainty heading into spring training. In past years, the organization was all about plugging holes with Proven Veterans (TM) in order to establish a predictable 25-man roster where everyone knew their job heading into camp. This year, there are five position players and three pitchers who are basically guaranteed a starting job, and everyone else is fighting for the six other starting gigs and the reserve slots.
Being willing to deal with uncertainty leads to a lot more flexibility and higher potential returns. Simply through sheer quantity of talent, you have a better chance of finding a good rotation when you have eight potential starters rather than five. And that’s exactly what the M’s have – eight potential starting pitchers headed to spring training. Let’s take a look at the spots that probably aren’t available this spring.
#1 – Felix Hernandez. This job isn’t up for grabs.
#2 – Erik Bedard. Can’t trade him in this market until he re-establishes his value. If he’s healthy, he’s a lock.
#3 – Brandon Morrow. The M’s have made it very clear that they see Morrow as a starter.
That leaves five guys fighting for the #4 and #5 starter spots. The candidates:
Jarrod Washburn – $10 million salary makes him untradeable, and while the contract is horrible and they obviously should have moved him when they had the chance, that’s all in the past now. He’s coming to Peoria, so where does he fit on the roster? He’s clearly a below average starter with no future in Seattle, but that doesn’t make him useless. As a flyball pitch-to-contact left-hander, he’s the pitcher we’d expect to benefit the most from a Chavez/Gutierrez/Ichiro outfield. With an outstanding outfield defense behind him, it’s fairly reasonable to see the potential for him to run a ~4.00 ERA in the first half and the team be able to dump him during the summer, saving $5 million or so of the contract that he’s owed. If you put him in the pen, you’re eating the whole $10 million.
Carlos Silva – probably the most obvious regression-to-the-mean candidate in baseball. His 6.46 ERA was two full runs higher than his 4.63 FIP, and that’s as unsustainable as anything you’ll ever see. He’s the exact same guy he’s always been – a strike-throwing ultra high contact starter who relies heavily on his defense. The extreme hatred of Silva simply isn’t justified by what we should expect from him on the mound in 2009. Like Washburn, he’s a 4.7 FIP guy who could easily outperform that mark if the team puts a good defense behind him. Like Washburn, he’s a #5 starter with a hideous contract, but the best way to get him off the roster is to have him re-establish some value as an innings eater. He can’t do that from the bullpen.
Ryan Rowland-Smith – the 25-year-old Aussie is going to have a lot of support for a spot in the rotation from both the blogosphere and the local media (in case you didn’t notice, Geoff Baker is a big fan). He’s young, he’s under team control for several years, he’s also a left-handed flyball pitcher who should benefit greatly from improved outfield defense, and he put up good results after moving to the rotation to finish 2008. If you’re treating 2009 as a build-for-the-future season, it’s worth finding out if Rowland-Smith can establish himself as a back-end starter, allowing the team to potentially close one hole in it’s 2010 rotation. However, there’s other considerations here – RRS wasn’t all that good as a starter, despite the results – his K rate as a starter was lower than Washburn’s, and his command isn’t as good. His success out of the bullpen, and the team’s need for a lefty setup guy, also are factors in the decision.
Aaron Heilman – He’s made no secret out of his desire to be a starter, which is one of the reasons the Mets shipped him off to Seattle in the first place. With a lot of competition, though, he’s going to have to really show improved command and bite on his slider to earn a starting job. His successful years as a reliever, he was a two-pitch guy, and the addition of the slider to his repertoire last year didn’t go so well. He’s not going to succeed as a starter without that breaking ball, though. However, the Ryan Dempster comparisons just won’t go away, and indeed, there are similarities. The Cubs hit the jackpot by moving Dempster to the rotation and finding a high quality starter, and with Heilman under team control through 2010, there’s a good amount of upside to be had if that would repeat itself in Seattle. The best case scenario for the M’s involves Heilman pulling a Dempster, but the question of how likely that is hangs over the rest of the discussion.
Miguel Batista – He’s the guy who really doesn’t have much of a chance unless the team bus crashes into a ditch or something. Coming off a disastrous ’08 season, 38 years old, in the final year of a contract that makes him untradeable, and with prior experience and success a reliever, he’s almost certainly heading to the bullpen. He’s an emergency option if Bedard gets hurt again, the team manages to trade Washburn, and someone else goes down in spring training, but the odds of him breaking camp as one of the team’s five starters are not very good. I expect that he’ll actually be a decently useful reliever, but for all intents and purposes, he’s only marginally involved in this conversation.
So, how should this all shake out? If the season started tomorrow, I’d go with Washburn and Silva as the #4 and #5 starters, but with Heilman and Rowland-Smith both working multi-inning reliever roles. Yes, I know, this will make a lot of you upset, but the team has a limited window of opportunity to get some value back from the Washburn/Silva contracts, and there’s real value in getting some ROI out of those two rather than just eating their entire contracts.
The goal, of course, would be to move Washburn as soon as possible. If he strings together five good starts to begin the season and someone calls him about him in May, you give him away and throw a party. At that point, you move either Heilman or Rowland-Smith into the rotation and give them a chance to show what they’ve got. Both of them are unlikely to be able to handle a full season starters’ workload anyway, so letting them start the year in the ‘pen will help keep their innings down while the team puts out marketing pamphlets selling Washburn to anyone who will listen.
By June or July, the team should have an idea of whether they have a real shot at winning a weak division or not as well as seeing if Bedard is going to pitch well enough to establish some trade value. If the team is out of contention and he’s pitching well and healthy, trading him is a no-brainer, which then opens up a slot in the rotation for the other Heilman/Rowland-Smith starter to join and finish out the year as a starter. If the team is contending and he’s pitching well, you probably keep him and make a run at a playoff spot. And, of course, if he’s injured again, then the rotation spot for Heilman/Rowland-Smith has already been created.
If you start the year with Rowland-Smith or Heilman in the rotation at the expense of Washburn or Silva, you’re not significantly upgrading the roster and you’re passing on the opportunity to rebuild some value from those two while you still can. I know those two are pariahs in the blogosphere, and they stand for everything that was wrong with the last administration, but those aren’t good reasons to make decisions on who should be pitching for the 2009 Mariners coming out of spring training.
The team has seven arms (and Batista) for five spots, but two of them are likely to be traded during the season, so there should be enough innings for everyone.