At some point in the next week or so – hopefully, at least – whatever has been ailing Shaun Marcum’s elbow will subside enough for him to rejoin the Brewers’ rotation. When he returns, the club will be left with an interesting conundrum as to how they will alter their current setup of Yovani Gallardo, Mike Fiers, Randy Wolf, Mark Rogers, and Marco Estrada.
Even though Wolf has really struggled this year (5.65 ERA and 4.74 FIP, which is going to go up after Sunday’s barrage against the Phillies), Ron Roenicke and Rick Kranitz both seem to agree that he isn’t going anywhere. This leaves the Brewers with two options, both of which Roenicke alluded to a few days ago: bump one of the club’s young starters (likely Mark Rogers) to the bullpen or AAA, or go with a six-man pitching rotation for the time being.
When I first saw the words “six-man rotation”, my knee-jerk response was to groan and see if Ron Roenicke Stole My Baseball was looking for extra contributors. Among all the managerial innovations of the last couple decades, few have been more poorly thought out than the practice of using six starters instead of five. The Platoon Advantage ran an excellent article on it a couple days ago, so I’ll only briefly recap: A six-man rotation takes starts away from a team’s best 5 pitchers and gives them to a guy who would otherwise be in the minors or long relief. An additional starting pitcher will also take up another precious roster spot, and there’s no evidence the extra day of rest gained makes pitchers better or healthier.
From a pure wins-and-losses standpoint, the idea is pointless at best and actively harmful at worst. However, given the Brewers’ current state, it might not be such a bad idea. Yes, employing a six-man rotation for an extended period of time is almost inevitably going to cost you wins, but wins shouldn’t be a concern for the 2012 Brewers. At this point, things like workloads and getting a variety of young pitchers a shot need to take precedence over on-field performance, and a six-man rotation could actually work very well in that regard.
The practice of limiting young pitchers’ innings is already a hot topic this year thanks to the protective efforts of a certain NL East team, but there’s a good chance that it makes its way into Milwaukee this year, too. Mike Fiers is probably going to be shut down at some point in September for sure, but he might not be the only pitcher who could potentially be subject to a cap:
(The first column is the number of innings the pitcher has thrown this year, the second column is their 2011 IP , and the third column is their projected 2012 total if they keep their current pace.)
As you can see, there are several red flags here. In recent years, the Brewers have been vigilant about not increasing their young pitchers’ innings by more than 30 a year, as such jumps in workload often lead to ineffectiveness or injury the following season – best known as the “Verducci Effect”. (The club learned this the hard way with cases like Ben Sheets and Manny Parra, so their caution is understandable.) Right now, Fiers is 2-3 starts away from that threshold, making him a near lock to either be shut down or moved to the bullpen before too long.
Mark Rogers is a different case, as he was hurt and/or suspended for most of last year, but he still needs to be handled with caution. Even if the Brewers plan to use Rogers as a starter in 2013, it doesn’t make sense to push him to 160 innings this year when his notoriously fragile shoulder has never permitted him to throw more than 126. Yovani Gallardo is actually younger than both Rogers and Fiers, and after pitching deep into the postseason last year, it wouldn’t hurt for the Brewers to tap their brakes on him down the stretch.
Enter the six-man rotation. The addition of Marcum would save Gallardo one or two starts while allowing both Fiers and Rogers to stay in the rotation a little bit longer, and if the Brewers brass wants to shut down either of the latter two, they could simply return to a five-man setup. Alternatively, they could recall Tyler Thornburg come September and have him start, hopefully with an eye on a similar role in 2013. (As an added bonus, Thornburg has thrown less than 120 innings this year, a result of him spending most of July in the big-league bullpen but rarely pitching.) In addition to helping the club manage innings, employing six starters would allow young arms such as Thornburg – and possibly others, like Wily Peralta – a chance to audition for a big-league role next year.
Generally speaking, using six starters is a bad idea, and if the Brewers do it, it will probably hurt their chances of winning games down the stretch. However, the Crew is at a point where winning games is irrelevant and maybe even undesirable if it hurts their position in next year’s draft. With several starters who could use some rest and a couple more who deserve an opportunity, adding another one would a sensible, pragmatic move by the Brewers’ coaching staff – the kind of move that often goes unnoticed among the flurry of righteous anger over sac bunts and haphazard bullpen management.