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May 28, 2009 at 11:51 AM

Mariners not necessarily behind curve in baseball’s young pitching craze

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Was reading an interesting story in USA Today this morning about the trend towards young — and inexperienced — pitching in baseball. Now, this story is nothing new. But what I found different from other, predictable stories on this topic was how it explored both sides of the equation.
Everybody assumes it’s a great thing to have young pitching in baseball. We’re talking really young, fresh off the Class AA or AAA boat kind of pitching. That this is how winning teams go about building a powerhouse. In some cases, this can be true. We all know what Jonathan Paplebon did for the Red Sox. Or Dontrelle Willis and Josh Beckett for the Florida Marlins. Not to mention that young Colorado Rockies staff that went to the World Series two years ago.
Ah, but not all stories turn out that way. Case in point: the Oakland Athletics club that the Mariners somehow just lost a series to. Many folks, including me, expected the A’s to be right up there contending in the AL West this season because of the young pitching stars they had accumulated, along with some bats to ignite an offense that had been woefully thin in recent years.
It hasn’t worked out, obviously. When your entire rotation is pushing an ERA of 5.00 or worse, that’s bottom of the barrel stuff.
I had a conversation with a major league baseball team executive about a month ago. He didn’t want to be quoted, obviously, because no one likes to be seen questioning what other teams are doing, but he pointed out how a lot of the fresh young arms in the game are just that: young arms. Nothing more than that. His implication was that many of those arms will be no better, and some worse, than the older, journeyman-type arms taking up space in major league rotations.
So why do that? Why stockpile so many young arms? That’s simple. Money.
It costs far less for the A’s to throw a steaming pile of kids out there than it would a steaming pile of veterans. Same result for fans. They get to see a losing team. But it costs far less.

Now, this may be stretching the point a bit with the A’s, who have some highly-touted arms in their rotation that might amount to something in a few years. But not all of them will. Oakland GM Billy Beane seems to admit as much in the USA Today story when he’s quoted as saying: “The biggest reason (to go young) is because it’s more cost-effective. And you should have better health with the younger guy. If you fail on a $7 million guy, there’s probably not much you can do. If you fail on a $400,000 guy, you can just make a change.”
It’s the same attitude MLB teams have taken in Latin America. Go out and sign 100 players on-the-cheap and hope one of them turns into the next Johan Santana or David Ortiz. In this case, the young pitchers are a slightly richer version of the kids plucked off the streets of Santo Domingo because they are, after all, earning the major league minimum.
But it’s still far cheaper, as Beane points out, to get rid of a rookie pitcher not performing than to have to deal with someone like a struggling Carlos Silva when things go wrong and you’re on-the-hook for a four-year contract worth eight figures.
It seems obvious, but that logic tends to fly out the window when some folks talk about the Mariners.
There is much teeth-gnashing now about the fact the Mariners have no up-and-coming, top-of-the-rotation prospects in their minor-league system. Much of that is because Brandon Morrow, pictured above, has become a reliever, as has another No. 1 draft pick, Phillippe Aumont. There is a sense that the Mariners are falling behind the curve in baseball, where the growing fan consensus is that you need a bunch of top arms coming up in your system to contend. Folks point at teams like the A’s and the Rangers, and then at the Mariners as if to say “Why is our cupboard so bare?”
My answer has always been that it’s better to have a team that spends money — even on some terrible players — than a team that doesn’t. Money enables you to correct mistakes or shortcomings in a hurry.
Yes, a team has to have talent coming up through its system. But it doesn’t necessarily have to include top-end starters. You can always go out and buy those. Or trade some of your surplus talent to get it.
Now, I know many of you are going to scream about the Erik Bedard deal and that you think the Mariners gave up too much. Maybe they did. Point is, you can deal talent to get a front line starter. You can throw money at free agent pitchers if you’ve got enough young talent and older talent to field a competitive team. The New York Mets have gotten plenty of bang for their buck after signing Santana and should have made the playoffs with him if not for their historic collapse. Trading for Beckett and buying Daisuke Matsuzaka helped the Red Sox win a World Series. And that is, after all, the ultimate goal. Winning a championship. It’s not about who can get the most players from Baseball America’s Top 100 on to their roster. That latter part can help you win down the road, but it is not the end goal.
And so, it’s best to keep some of that in mind as we go forward.
I’m sure Jack Zduriencik would love to get his hands on some top-projected starting pitchers in the coming June draft. And that he’d be thrilled to have some top-end guys knocking on the door in AAA right now. But if he doesn’t, it’s not the end of life as we know it. There is more than one way to acomplish the end goal of winning.
Despite well-documented failures by teams on the free-agent pitching front, or the giving up of arguably too much talent to acquire top pitchers, there are successes in that area as well. And the way the baseball market is heading, good veteran pitchers should be cheaper as we move forward.
The goal for a rotation is to get good pitching — period. And many of those young arms around the game are not all indicators of a bright future. Many are up now simply because teams are trying to penny pinch. Or, because their teams did not correctly identify the limits of their talent. Maybe it is the best thing to plug a guy like Aumont or Morrow in to a relief role right away rather than waste years trying to make them become the next Tim Lincecum in your rotation if they don’t have the skills to do it. And that’s what GMs and player development directors are paid good money for: to make those educated guesses early rather than too late.
The A’s have a ton of young arms. But not all of them are going to be good. Not all of them are going to stick in the majors. In fact, some of them already appear to be getting exposed for what they are — and I’m not talking about won-lost records. Put it this way: despite all the hype, the A’s do not look like they will be a World Series threat anytime soon. Same with the Rockies. Look how fast their future dreams took a tumble — starting with the rotation, as the USA Today story mentions — after their one-off, more-or-less fluke of a World Series appearance.
It’s tough to predict young pitching. And just because the Mariners don’t have as much of it right now as some other teams does not make them any less better positioned for a future championship as those clubs. In this case, the trend towards younger pitching in baseball does not automatically mean young and stellar pitching. We’re in a new financial era right now where, in the case of young starters, quantity in many cases is being put ahead of quality.



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