A New Approach to the Fifth Starter

As we saw yesterday in my introductory post, there is really is no point in wasting time and resources trying to enter the season with five starters earmarked for 25+ starts. No. 5 starters, in the traditional sense, just don’t exist. The best bet is to focus on securing four starters that can make 24 starts or more. In the fifth spot in the rotation, a three-man job-share could then be developed and it would break down like this:

1. A long reliever who would serve as the seventh arm in the ‘pen and be expected to make eight to 10 starts on the year. Ideally, this would be a proven veteran who could stick at the MLB level all season.

2. A pitching prospect that projects to be a fringe No. 3 or 4 with two or three minor league options remaining. He would be introduced to the Majors in this low-pressure role over the next two to three seasons before officially (hopefully) graduating to the role of a reliable third or fourth starter. In this role, the pitcher would need to make about 10 starts at the MLB level each season.

3. A minor league “veteran” pitcher (somewhere in the 25-30 year old range) who has been unable to stick in the Majors – and still has at least one minor league option left – and can be relied on to make at least five starts on the season.

Let’s use a real team (The Toronto Blue Jays) to flesh out this example.
No. 1 starter: Ricky Romero
No. 2 starter: Shaun Marcum
No. 3 starter: Marc Rzepczynski
No. 4 starter: Brett Cecil

The job-share in the fifth spot would include:
1. Brian Tallet, as the long-man (0 options)
2. Brad Mills, as the prospect (2 options)
3. Lance Broadway, as the minor-league vet (1 option)

If all goes well, we can expect this group to make 23 starts out of the fifth spot, which more than most teams can hope for… and it leaves a little room to exceed expectation if one pitcher performs better than expected. But we should also have a safeguard because injuries and other unexpected situations always arise. In triple-A, Toronto would have a reliever capable of going 3-4 innings (Sean Stidfole, 3 options) to replace Tallet, along with two emergency starters that could fill in to replace Mills (Rey Gonzalez, 3 options) and Broadway (Randy Boone, 3 options).

This may seem like a lot of moving parts or a lot of resources to tie up in this situation but we know that a team is going to struggle to find five reliable starters each season (four will be tough to find for some), so it makes sense to plan ahead. Seven teams used 10 or more starters each that made 23 or fewer starts last season. Most of those pitchers will filling in the gap in the fifth hole in the rotation.

The best part of the Jays plan above, is the cost efficiency. Tallet will make $2 million in 2010 for his role as a spot starter and long man out of the bullpen. Mills and Broadway would make just over the minimum MLB salary when in the Majors, while the other three pitchers – if needed – would make exactly the minimum. In other words, you’d be filling a minimum of 23 starts on the year for less than $3 million. As well, by ensuring that everyone but Tallet has options remaining, the club will not risk losing any of these players in 2010.

Obviously this plan is not going to score a team 20 quality starts, so the goal would be to expect a league-average perform from the job-share when the 23 starts are averaged out. Even so, that’s solid value for less than $3 million. And if a significant injury strikes Tallet, Mills or Broadway, it’s not a catastrophic situation; you can have the other two pitchers pick up the slack, or bring up one of your back-ups. If you look at some of the pitching performances received from fill-in starters or supposed “No. 5 starters,” you find that the performances are most often well below league average. Scrambling to fill starts can also result in throwing millions of dollars at pitchers like Sidney Ponson to make five or six disappointing starts before a release is mercifully made.

So, to recap… This job-share plan is good because…
A) The inevitable pitching injuries will have a lesser (negative) impact
B) It will help train young pitchers for an eventual larger role
C) It’s cost efficient

It’s at least worth a try because we know the currently model is flawed for most – if not all – clubs.

Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Deacon Drake
14 years ago

I would add one other category to that: starting pitcher recovering from injury, such as Tim Hudson last season, or numerous other guys this year (Jordan Zimmermann) who will spell some innings in September.

Obviously, these guys have the talent to be top of the rotation guys, but by the time that they come off the DL, the rotation will likely be set, and their recovery regiment will curb their innings.