The Most Important Reserve

When Opening Day day rolls around in a few months, Major League teams will have to declare an active 25 man roster. That roster will, in most cases, be divided into 13 position players and 12 pitchers, with five of those pitchers designated as starters, and the rest serving as relievers out of the bullpen. However, while teams will begin the season with five starters, any team with a strong hope of contending in 2013 should have a sixth starter waiting in the wings.

Because of the frequency of pitcher injuries, it is exceedingly rare for a team to make it through the whole season without leaning on a starter who didn’t begin the year in their rotation. Last year, 186 different pitchers threw at least 50 innings as a starter, which works out to an average of just over six per team. While the sixth starter often begins the season either in Triple-A or in long relief, they’ll usually end up throwing nearly half a season’s worth of innings overall, their performance can make a significant difference on a team’s final record.

For instance, A.J. Griffin didn’t join the A’s until June 24th, when he was called up from Sacramento to replace the injured Brandon McCarthy. He proceeded to post a 3.06 ERA in 15 starts over the remainder of the season, and the A’s went 12-3 when he took the hill. The A’s beat out the Rangers for the AL West title by one game. While no single player can be responsible for a division title, it is pretty clear that the A’s wouldn’t have managed to finish ahead of Texas had Griffin not put together a remarkable second half of the season. Kris Medlen, Michael Fiers, Alex Cobb, and Hisashi Iwakuma also made significant contributions to their teams after joining the rotation in mid-season.

So, which teams are prepared for the inevitable need for a sixth starter heading into 2013? Here are three pitchers who give their teams necessary depth, and could end up being big parts of a winning club even if they don’t have a job coming out of spring training.

Rick Porcello, RHP, Detroit

Trade rumors have been swirling around Porcello ever since the Tigers re-signed Anibal Sanchez, as Porcello is seemingly without a starting spot headed into the year. He’s certainly better than many other pitchers penciled into rotations on other teams, so a trade would make some sense. However, the Tigers might want to consider just keeping Porcello for themselves.

Doug Fister had two different stints on the disabled list last year resulting from a costochrondal strain, and has only made 30 starts in a season once in three full big league seasons. Drew Smyley only threw 117 innings last year between Triple-A and the Majors, and is still at the point of his career where Detroit isn’t going to want to push him too quickly. Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer both have their own injury histories as well. Behind Justin Verlander, there are plenty of reasons to think that the Tigers will need to fill gaps from time to time, and the drop-off to the next best starter if Porcello is trade would be extreme.

Casey Crosby would probably be first in line to replace Porcello, and he was nothing short of a disaster in three mid-season appearances last year, giving up 13 runs in 12 1/3 innings. His command simply isn’t yet Major League caliber, and having Crosby run up 100 pitches in four innings every fifth day would put a large strain on an already thin bullpen. While Porcello might hold more value for another team that could use him as a full season starter, the Tigers should be interested in minimizing the risk of losing the division by having to turn to inadequate replacements if injuries start to mount. Given the difference between a quality pitcher like Porcello and the alternatives if they traded him away, the Tigers best bet may be to just use Porcello in relief until the need arises.

Chris Capuano, LHP, Los Angeles

It has to be a little weird for Capuano to come to camp without a guaranteed rotation spot, given that he is coming off one of the best seasons of his career and stayed healthy for the entire 2012 season. Yet, after the Dodgers splurged on Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu after picking up Josh Beckett last August, there might not be room for him in the opening day rotation, especially if Chad Billingsley proves to be healthy during spring training.

But, despite the fact that Capuano might not be promised a rotation spot on opening day, the Dodgers shouldn’t be in any hurry to reduce their rotation depth. Money is clearly not a problem for the organization, so they don’t need to ship him out to save the $6 million he’s due in 2013, and while they have a large quantity of starters behind Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, they don’t necessarily have a ton of quality. Beckett wasn’t particularly good for either the Red Sox or Dodgers last year, which is why Boston gave him to Los Angeles in the first place. Aaron Harang’s 3.61 ERA from last year looks like a total mirage when compared to his 4.14 FIP and 4.95 xFIP. Ryu is a total wild card. Even if all three are completely healthy, odds are pretty good that one of them just doesn’t pitch very well in 2013.

From a performance perspective, it’s not entirely crazy to think that Capuano could be the Dodgers third or fourth best pitcher next year, even if he begins the year in the bullpen. Having him around not only gives them depth in case of an injury, but could very well allow them to upgrade on a weak rotation spot in season.

Chris Archer, SP, Tampa Bay

The Rays have been notorious about hoarding their pitching depth, and even after trading James Shields to Kansas City, they still have too many good arms to fit everyone into their opening day rotation. Right now, the hard-throwing right-hander is on the outside looking in, but Archer showed glimpses of dominance in his debut last year, and provides the Rays with another tantalizing option for the summer if one of their young arms goes down.

Don’t pay too much attention to his 4.60 ERA; it’s the 29.5% strikeout rate from his 29 big league innings that should be the real eye opener. For reference, Max Scherzer led all qualified MLB starters in K% during 2012, with a 29.4% strikeout rate. Archer shouldn’t be expected to keep that performance up over a full season worth of starts, but his dominant stuff should allow him to be an excellent fill-in whenever Tampa Bay needs to give one of their young arms a break.

The Rays have always put a lot of value in having more than five good starters, and they’re still rich in young pitching even after trading James Shields. Not having to lean on a mediocre Triple-A veteran or overpay for a rent-a-pitcher at the deadline has been one of the keys to the team’s sustained success, and they appear set to continue to take advantage of that strength.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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