It's time to rethink the 'No. 5 starter'

March, 23, 2010
3/23/10
3:24
AM ET
I admire a man who tilts at windmills, particularly when it's done with great creativity. So while I might have quibbles with Marc Hulet's assault on No. 5 starters -- or rather, the idea of a particular No. 5 starter -- this is a conversation that we really should be having ...

    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.

I agree absolutely that the current practice is silly (and I've been writing that for about as long as I can remember). I'm not at all sure that Hulet's prescription is going to convince anyone.

As things stand now, the manager merely has to make one choice each March, between the three or four semi-viable candidates who showed up in Florida or Arizona figuring to compete for that last rotation slot.

Instead, Hulet wants the manager to make three choices, among (presumably) somewhere between six and nine candidates? It's too much. Managers like to waste their time deciding whether Casey Kotchman should bat third or fifth; most of them have neither the time nor the intellect to make so many decisions.

That's probably not fair. How about this, though: Hulet is suggesting that managers suddenly toss out the pitching staffs with which they've become so familiar -- five starters, one closer, a couple of setup men, one situational lefty, plus two or three assorted hangers-on -- and do something completely different. And I'm suggesting that they just will not do it. They're too comfortable with what they've been doing (and I'm not absolutely sure that what they're doing is wrong).

Let's instead start here. Hulet's probably right: There's probably a better way to do this. But I don't believe that a one-size-fits-all approach is going to make any headway. Every club doesn't have a "long reliever" who can go six innings eight or 10 times during the season. Every team doesn't have a prospect who projects as a "fringe No. 3 or 4 with two or three minor-league options remaining." Every team doesn't have a minor-league veteran in his late 20s with at least one option left (though most teams probably do).

I don't know if Hulet's system, applied across the board, would be better than what teams are doing now. Granted, it could hardly be worse. But what I would do, if I were running a team, is sit down with my manager in November or December and come up with a plan that might work, given the personnel on hand. Maybe that means opening the season with a set No. 5 starter. Maybe it means a couple of veterans, one lefty and one righty, the starter every fifth game depending on the composition of the enemy lineup. Maybe it means Hulet's complex plan, if our manager is particularly creative.

Most likely, it means something else, for your team anyway. What it doesn't mean is throwing some Triple-A refugee out there and blindly hoping he'll win a dozen games. Which, oddly enough, is what almost every team will do next month.

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