After news of the seven year contract extension for Felix Hernandez broke, more news followed a couple days later, and it was that the Mariners were looking to add some elbow injury provisions in. The reason for this is that his elbow has come up in some tests as having some slight issues. The thing about slight issues in elbows is that they sometimes become serious issues as time passes. And that got me thinking about injuries, specifically to pitchers and specifically to pitcher who work a lot of innings. Then I got to thinking about the rest of the diamond, and while there’s a lot of potential for top end talent at just about every position, the depth is especially weak pretty much everywhere but behind the plate now.
Let’s focus on the mound where the Royals have completely rebuilt their rotation. Last season, the five guys in the rotation on Opening Day were Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar, Jonathan Sanchez, Danny Duffy and Luis Mendoza (though Mendoza was in there for an injured Paulino). The 2013 version of the rotation will feature (barring injury) only one of those as Chen, Hochevar and Mendoza are fighting for the fifth starter spot (though it’s not much of a fight if Yost’s comments are any indication). Instead, they’ve been replaced with proven veteransâ„¢ James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie and Ervin Santana along with a younger arm in Wade Davis. Pitchers always pose an injury risk, and these four are no different for some different reasons.
At the top of the rotation is James Shields who is lauded by the fanbase and the front office for his consistency and his innings, and that’s ignoring the fact that he’s been a pretty darn good pitcher in most years. Over the course of his seven year career, he’s thrown over 1,400 innings with 477 of them coming in the last two seasons. Those innings are not a guarantee he’ll get hurt, nor are the factors listed here by Jeff Zimmerman, but a pitcher who is over 30 with those kind of innings on his arm is a risk. If Shields goes down, the rotation is still improved as long as two of Guthrie, Santana and Davis pitch average or better, but it’s not significantly better because he’s probably replaced by Chen, who is probably not average.
Going down the rotation, Guthrie is a risk as a 34 year-old pitcher who has averaged 200 innings per year in his last four. Santana is a risk because of both innings and the fact that he’s had some elbow issues in the past. Like I said above, when those pop up, they rarely just go away quietly. They come back at some point. And Davis is a risk because he’s moving from the bullpen to the rotation, and that’s going to be a big innings jump. I think he’s the smallest risk of the four, but he’s also the easiest to replace if he does get hurt, so that’s kind of a hollow victory there. Ignoring for a few minutes the possibility that Guthrie or Santana implodes (I really don’t see Shields imploding), the nice thing about this rotation is that there’s depth within it, so if one goes down, Guthrie at the top is still probably an improvement over Chen and down the list.
Many will argue that the Royals rotation just has to bide time until Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino are back and ready to go, but I encourage people to be a little more reserved about their excitement for those two. While pitchers come back and come back successfully at a ridiculous rate, there are a few things to think about with these two. The first is that control is the last thing to come back when returning from Tommy John surgery, and neither of these two pitchers are exactly control artists, so they might not provide a whole lot at first as they’re trying to find their command and control. The second is that while pitchers come back healthy most of the time, not many come back at the top of their game right away. And if either Paulino or Duffy is going to come back in time to really help the Royals, they’re going to come back at right around the 12 month mark, which is on the quicker side of the typical recovery timetable. It’s not unheard of for a pitcher to be on top of his game right away, but it’s awfully rare, especially when coming back quickly.
Don’t get me wrong here. The options to replace injured or ineffective starters are so much better than those last season, but I think it would be difficult to be worse. If I had to list a depth chart for the rotation on February 12, it would be:
On that list, a guy like Yordano Ventura will probably not be an option in early May, but could move to the top of the list by the time June or July comes around if he’s pitching well. The Royals can add in the aforementioned Duffy and Paulino and maybe even John Lamb if his recovery goes well. Kyle Zimmer might factor in late in the season, but I think that’s an absolute best case scenario for him.
So yes, the depth is better, but like I said, it would have been pretty difficult for it to be worse. I don’t mean to be a wet blanket, but the options to replace those currently in the rotation just aren’t terribly exciting unless we see super fast development from Yordano Ventura or that quick recovery from Duffy and Paulino. They’re pitchers who I’d be fine making a spot start in a double header or something, but not guys who could lead a team to a playoff berth if they need to be counted on for months on end. Pitching prospects like Montgomery, Dwyer and Arguelles flaming out and other pitchers getting injured that have put the Royals in this position. I will say that I think a lot of teams would be happy to have Bruce Chen as their sixth starter, though I’m not convinced any of those teams would have Luke Hochevar in their rotation. I just think for the Royals to have any hope, they’ll need to stay healthy in the rotation and probably even get some surprising performances from those in it. There’s a lot of hope in 2013, but it’s built on a foundation that scares me a little.
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