As always, teams pursue pitching
Drafting, developing young hurlers is key to success for many
It is, as it ever was, all about pitching.
Yes, the Indians lead the American League in quality starts, as the Athletics led the Majors last year. Now, the Phillies lead the Majors in that category, as expected, and to their ownership's credit, Ruben Amaro Jr. was allowed to spend what it takes -- around $65 million for the five starters, including Joe Blanton -- to have the best rotation in the game. In comparison, Oakland's and Cleveland's rotations combined make less than $12 million, compared to the nearly $50 million the Red Sox are paying their starters and the nearly $40 million the Yankees are paying CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.
As if the Yankees and Red Sox want to hear about it, the Rays' starters have more wins, more quality starts and a better ERA than any other team in the AL East. They are being paid $8 million, less than what Blanton earns. Not only that, but Tampa Bay has four prime pitching prospects on the immediate horizon.
"Let's face it, no small-market team can afford to go into the market to get starting pitching," says A's general manager Billy Beane. "To survive and compete, you have to draft and develop pitching, or go out and get it before it's on the Major League radar screen."
Oakland leads the Majors the past two years in quality starts. Trevor Cahill is 23, and he has a 6-0 record and 1.72 ERA with a 45-16 K-BB ratio in 52 1/3 innings. Brett Anderson is 23. Gio Gonzalez is 25, Tyson Ross is 24, and with Dallas Braden unfortunately hurt, Brandon McCarthy, 26, has stepped in with a 3.26 ERA.
Cahill and Ross were second-round Draft picks. Anderson came over from Arizona in the Dan Haren deal. Gonzalez came from Philadelphia in the Blanton trade.
The Indians developed Fausto Carmona, Josh Tomlin and Alex White, their first pick in the 2009 Draft. They got Carlos Carrasco in the Cliff Lee deal and Justin Masterson for Victor Martinez when economics demanded they move at the right time.
"It's simple," says Beane. "When we had [Jason] Giambi, [Eric] Chavez and a solid core of players in the late '90s, we knew we had to develop our own pitchers. We drafted Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. Now, I don't think we ever imagined how good they'd become. In fact, at the time they were pitching us into the playoffs almost every year, I thought it might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
When the time came, Beane moved Mulder and Hudson. The Mulder deal brought Haren; the Hudson deal didn't work out. Zito never missed a start and moved across The Bay as a free agent. Haren became Anderson, and Blanton became Gonzalez.
"As great as Huddy, Mulder and Zito were," says Beane, "this group could be as good. Cahill has become one of the best pitchers in the game. He's a great athlete, he repeats his delivery, he's got uncanny instincts for knowing what hitters are trying to do."
John Lackey, whose $15.25 million salary is roughly the equivalent of the Oakland, Cleveland and Tampa Bay starters combined, has allowed six, nine, eight and nine runs in four of his seven starts and has an 8.01 ERA.
"What this does is make premium starting pitchers a priority in the Draft," says Beane. "Sometimes teams don't want to pay the first-round money, but how else do you get the premium pitching?"
For instance, the Indians went right down to the Aug. 15 deadline on White, who now, with his mid-90s stuff, athleticism and competitiveness, has a chance to be at the front of their rotation for seven years.
"The need for top starters is why there is so much consternation at the top of this [year's] Draft," says one general manager. There is no consensus on the best college starter, as there was with Stephen Strasburg in 2009. UCLA's Gerrit Cole was the preseason poster boy, but he has been outperformed by teammate Trevor Bauer. Some think the Pirates will take Virginia lefty Danny Hultzen. Georgia Tech's Jed Bradley is a sure top-10 selection. Connecticut's Matt Barnes will be in the top half of the first round. And all of a sudden Kentucky's mammoth Alex Meyer has come fast, out-pitching Vanderbilt's Sonny Gray last weekend with the stands packed with scouts.
The Royals want a college starter who can get to the big leagues quickly and be in their rotation with Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy and Jake Odorizzi. Arizona will take at least one pitcher with two of the first seven picks.
While starting pitchers are clearly the focus of all small- and mid-market teams, several scouts who know pitching are worried about bullpen overuse. We have seen how treacherous it can be to sign hard-worked middle relievers on the open market, especially to three-year contracts; you might have noticed Joaquin Benoit's 6.59 ERA, or the 5.79 put up by Rafael Soriano.
There are nearly 30 relievers currently on paths to 80 or more appearances. "Even more worrisome," says one scout, "is the number of appearances some closers are putting up." Indeed, Mariano Rivera is on an 85-appearance pace. Mark Melancon is on pace for 90 appearances. Drew Storen, Huston Street, Leo Nunez and Joel Hanrahan are all on pace for 80 or more appearances.
"And," says the scout, "people wonder why so many relievers are good one year, bad the next. Look at Tampa. Joe Maddon got all he could get out of his 'pen last year and won the AL East. They lost the entire group, and they're back with one of the best 'pens in the league." One can be certain that the Rays will take four or five pitchers when they use 10 of the first 40 picks in the Draft.
There are those who still think "Moneyball" is simply about on-base percentage and finding the next Jack Cust. They either never read the book or couldn't understand it. Beane was talking about value, about trying to compete with a budget a third or a quarter of that of the Yankees, and if the book were written today, it would be about starting pitching, and how to find and afford it.
"We can talk about young position players," says Kansas City's Dayton Moore, who has assembled some of the best position prospects in the game. "But they're not going to win if we don't find young, affordable pitching."
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.