Pitchers facing innings caps

Which young arms could be shut down earlier than fantasy owners would like?

Updated: June 17, 2014, 3:34 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Andrew Heaney was promoted by the Miami Marlins on Monday, is set to make his major league debut on Thursday and is a virtual certainty to be the most-added player in fantasy leagues this week.

He should be. He was Keith Law's No. 34 prospect overall and No. 17 pitching prospect in the preseason, and he managed a combined 2.61 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 8.32 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio (25.4 percent rate, using total batters faced). And, as pointed out in past columns -- specifically here and here -- rookies tend to be well worth the proverbial dice roll.

That said, there's an angle to the Heaney story that isn't capturing attention, and it's one with implications upon his team, not merely upon him alone: He's one of the few pitchers in 2014 who might legitimately face what teams term an "innings cap," his season in jeopardy of being shortened.

[+] EnlargeHeaney
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesTop Marlins pitching prospect Andrew Heaney should produce right away, but just how many starts will he actually get this year?

Marlins fans -- and owners of a certain former ace of theirs -- know the drill: Jose Fernandez was capped at 28 starts and 172 2/3 innings in 2013, his season done on Sept. 11. But even beyond the mere seasonal innings total, Fernandez was never afforded more than 109 pitches in an outing that year, and only eight times was he allowed to throw at least 100. His was one of the more conservatively managed workloads of 2013, and while the story didn't have a happy ending this year, it's one that nevertheless might have itself a sequel in Heaney. In fact, the Marlins, by current innings paces, could have a rotation of pitchers facing innings caps, setting up a particularly perplexing September.

Will the Marlins, seeing the Fernandez example, reconsider their strategy, allowing their youngsters to keep pitching regardless of how much their workloads increase comparative to 2013? Might Fernandez's example make them even more conservative with their young arms? Or might there be a third option -- the team taking an approach closer to the middle.

Whatever the result, fantasy owners -- especially those in head-to-head leagues with playoffs beckoning in early September -- need to prepare for the potential losses of their pitchers in those final regular-season weeks. Fernandez isn't the only such historical example; Stephen Strasburg had his 2012 cut short, and the same goes for Jordan Zimmermann in 2011 and Mat Latos in 2010, and in all of those years, those pitchers were key members of their fantasy teams.

This column isn't meant to validate the strategy; it's an acknowledgement that it exists among many major league teams. It's largely irrelevant whether setting predetermined innings caps is wise strategy, what matters to fantasy owners is the impact upon their pitchers' full-season prognoses.

That in mind, let's examine the young starting pitchers who might face innings caps this season. Listed in parentheses is the pitcher's age (years, months and days), 2014 innings pace, 2013 total innings and the difference between the two. All innings totals include major and minor league stats. A "worry level," ranging from low to moderate to high to extreme, is also included. Pitchers are listed in declining order of their projected 2014 increase in innings.

[+] EnlargeHenderson Alvarez
AP Photo/Andrew A. NellesHenderson Alvarez is among a whole crop of Marlins starters who could be shut down earlier than fantasy owners would like.

Henderson Alvarez, Miami Marlins (24 years, 60 days; 206 2/3-inning pace; 127 innings in 2013; 79 2/3-inning increase): In Alvarez's defense, he had a 187 1/3-inning season in the majors just two seasons ago, but he subsequently lost the entire first half of the 2013 campaign with shoulder inflammation. The Marlins might consider skipping a start or three of his if/when they fall out of the race, but as Alvarez has a wide home/road split and a modest 15.3 percent strikeout rate (5.73 as calculated per nine innings, and 12.6 percent and 4.73 per nine in his big league career), his fantasy owners could probably live with that. Worry level: Moderate.

Robbie Ross, Texas Rangers (24 years, 358 days old; 141 1/3-inning pace; 62 1/3 innings in 2013; 79-inning increase): The Rangers moved him to the bullpen four weeks ago, eliminating any major concern of a workload cap. Worry level: Low, if not nonexistent.

Nathan Eovaldi, Miami Marlins (24 years, 124 days; 205-inning pace; 127 innings in 2013; 78-inning increase): He's the Marlins pitcher at greatest jeopardy of an early shutdown, having never exceeded 154 1/3 innings in a single professional season (that was in 2012) and possessing a higher career ceiling than any other current Marlins starter besides Heaney. Eovaldi could be shut down a few weeks early -- before head-to-head playoff matchups begin in ESPN leagues -- if he continues near this pace, so make preparations if he's a critical part of your team. Worry level: High.

Jenrry Mejia, New York Mets (24 years, 249 days; 124 1/3-inning pace; 52 innings in 2013; 72 1/3-inning increase): If you were wondering why Mejia, who at times during his seven season-opening starts had the look of a high-upside fantasy play, was demoted to the bullpen in May, look no further than those numbers. The Mets didn't make the change because of Mejia's 5.06 ERA; they did it because of his predetermined 120-125 innings cap for the season. Shifting him to short relief guaranteed he'd remain under that number, but with the shorter rest periods between outings, it might be smart to prepare for some conservative handing out of his save chances in the season's second half regardless. Worry level: Moderate.

Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves (23 years, 141 days; 246 2/3-inning pace; 185 2/3 innings in 2013; 61-inning increase): His numbers aren't as troubling as they appear. Teheran, after all, has seen his innings go from 81 1/3 (in 2009) to 142 2/3 to 164 1/3 to 137 1/3 to 185 2/3 (in 2013), and if that 48 1/3-inning increase last season hasn't resulted in adverse effects on him this year, why sweat another jump of 40? Besides, Teheran can't outpitch his peripherals to this extent -- he has a 2.41 ERA but a 3.56 FIP -- and any regression to the mean should slow his innings pace to the 210 range, perfectly reasonable. The primary concern with him is whether the Braves make the playoffs; they might decide to ease off him slightly in September to preserve him, especially if they can clinch their fate in advance. Worry level: Low.

Heaney (23 years, 12 days; 180-inning pace; 123 innings in 2013; 57-inning increase): Heaney is the third of three current Marlins starters in this category, and there's no question he's the one most at risk of a premature conclusion to his season, being that he's their next-most valuable pitching asset to Fernandez. Pitchers in this class tend to be capped at about a 30-inning increase -- regardless of such wiser measures as pitch counts, stress of pitches thrown and length of innings -- meaning Heaney is probably not going to be afforded much more than 75 major league innings, which is the rough equivalent of 13 starts. On an every-fifth-game schedule, 13 starts would extend Heaney through the Marlins' 134th game of 2014 ... currently scheduled for Aug. 30. There's no doubt that he warrants your pickup, but in a redraft league, the hotter his start and the more his innings pace swells, the smarter a sell-high candidate he becomes. Worry level: Extreme.

Jeurys Familia, New York Mets (24 years, 250 days; 80 1/3-inning pace; 28 innings in 2013; 52 1/3-inning increase): He was born one day after Mejia, and he's one pitcher behind Mejia in the pecking order for Mets saves by most accounts. Familia is also a pitcher facing a possible innings cap, not because 80 innings is an especially large annual total, but because he's in his first full season as a reliever, he pitched winter ball, he's on pace for a whopping 75 appearances and he had an elbow surgery approximately one year ago. It's not unthinkable that the Mets might consider some sort of second-half "saves partnership" involving Familia and Mejia ... and perhaps even former "closer of the future" Vic Black. Worry level: Moderate.

[+] EnlargeMichael Wacha
AP Photo/Scott KaneHow will the Cardinals manage Michael Wacha's workload this season?

Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals (22 years, 351 days; 195 1/3-inning pace; 149 2/3 innings in 2013; 45 2/3-inning increase): Didn't we go through this last year? Wacha had his workload carefully managed then, and at 22 years old, he'll probably have it watched now, even if it's in the Shelby Miller-in-2013 style. (In other words, if the Cardinals make the playoffs, watch Wacha pitch only one meaningless inning the entire month.) It's actually a bigger deal if the Cardinals find themselves out of contention by early September; they'd probably be more likely to shut him down then. Worry level: Moderate.

Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics (24 years, 222 days; 213-inning pace; 182 1/3 innings in 2013; 30 2/3-inning increase): I'm only concerned with him in that the Athletics are a virtual lock to make the playoffs, and Gray hasn't enjoyed the lengthy step-ladder career increase that Teheran has; Gray's innings have gone from 22 (in 2011) to 152 to 182 1/3 (in 2013). There's no way the Athletics would shut Gray down unless injuries forced it, but them easing off the gas pedal or him struggling in September is possible. Worry level: Moderate.

Jarred Cosart, Houston Astros (24 years, 23 days; 182 2/3-inning pace; 153 innings in 2013; 29 2/3-inning increase): The concern here is that Cosart is continually improving as a pitcher, and that pace might actually be conservative. He has totaled 49 innings since May 1, which projected to a full season would result in 200, not 182 2/3, frames. And if his Astros can somehow mount a wild-card run, they might burn up his innings by mid-September and decide to shut him down if they fall short. Worry level: Moderate.

Shelby Miller, St. Louis Cardinals: (23 years, 250 days; 195 1/3-inning pace; 173 1/3 innings in 2013; 22-inning increase): As conservative as the Cardinals were with his 2013 workload, do they really have designs upon capping him beneath 200? Don't count on it, as Miller's performance will ultimately decide how his season concludes. Worry level: Low.

[+] EnlargeTyler Skaggs
AP Photo/Pat SullivanTyler Skaggs' recent DL stint might actually be decent news for him pitching later in the season.

Tyler Skaggs, Los Angeles Angels: (22 years, 339 days; 170-inning pace; 148 1/3 innings in 2013; 21 2/3-inning increase): His disabled-list stint has slowed his seasonal pace, but Skaggs could boost that number quickly if he returns this coming weekend, and he'll probably pitch much of the year in the midst of a dogfight for an American League wild card. I don't see any way the Angels would let him top 180 frames. Worry level: High.

Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants (24 years, 320 days; 219-inning pace; 201 1/3 innings in 2013; 17 2/3-inning increase): He has pitched 200-plus innings in each of the past three seasons -- plus another 20 2/3 on top of that during the 2010 playoffs and 15 in the 2012 playoffs -- and missed that plateau by only 6 1/3 innings in 2010, so there's no reason whatsoever to worry about Bumgarner's workload. Worry level: Low, if not nonexistent.

Yordano Ventura, Kansas City Royals (23 years, 14 days; 165-inning pace; 150 innings in 2013; 15-inning increase): He'd probably be on pace for 170-175 frames if not for the elbow injury that recently cost him a start, but it's that injury that makes him a risk for an early shutdown. Ventura has a taxing delivery and the Royals are sure to take it conservatively with him, as they did when he initially got hurt, and if his pace swells into the 175-180 range at any point, you can be sure he'll pay for it with a shorter September. Worry level: High.

One more, slightly off pace

Alex Wood, Atlanta Braves (23 years, 156 days; 150 1/3-inning pace; 139 2/3 innings in 2013; 10 2/3-inning increase): Though his seasonal pace isn't close to at a level of concern, Wood was recently demoted to the minors to be stretched out as a starter, and if he remains in that role all season, including with the big league club deep into September, he could quickly rise into a concern. Besides, the Braves have options with him: As a playoff team they might want him to help out again in relief, and they'd probably want to move him there in advance. Worry level: High.

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