Monday, September 8, 2014

Thoughts on building a good rotation

Kyle Gibson is the one pitcher the Twins took in
the first three rounds between 2008 and 2011 who has
amounted to anything in the majors.
I've been carrying on a sporadic email conversation with a reader -- he's consistent, actually. I'm sporadic about replying -- largely about the Twins pitching issues. One thing I've told him is that the problem isn't that the organization has been cheap. It hasn't been. Witness the Ricky Nolasco-Phil Hughes-Mike Pelfrey $73 million splurge of last winter.

The problem with building a rotation from free agents is: A "proven" free agent starter, by definition, is a pitcher in or at least near his 30s with several years of wear-and-tear on his arm; decline is more likely than improvement. The Twins hit on one of their three signings this year (Hughes); it really is irrational to expect better than that.

Look at the best rotations around baseball and you'll see a heavy reliance on pitchers who

  • were developed entirely by that team's farm system or
  • were acquired in trade BEFORE they became accomplished major leaguers
  • with a free-agent or veteran tradee mixed in

Consider, for example, the Tigers: Justin Verlander (homegrown), Max Scherzer (9-15 won-loss record when acquired in trade), Anibel Sanchez (free agent), Rick Porcello (homegrown) and David Price (acquired in trade for the homegrown Drew Smyly).

Or The Giants, who have won two World Series this decade with a rotation built around Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner, all homegrown.

The Twins are not going to build a stellar rotation out of free agent veterans. It simply doesn't work that way. You can get one or two pieces of the puzzle from free agency and veteran trades, but the foundation has to be built with young arms, because young arms are (probably) less damaged and easier to accumulate.

This process hasn't gone well in recent years for the Twins. They are feeling the effects of a multi-year dry spell in drafting pitchers, and not for a lack of effort.

In 2008, they drafted three pitchers in the first three rounds: Carlos Gutierrez, Shooter Hunt and Bobby Lanigan. Bust, bust, and bust.

In 2009, they invested their first four picks, all in the first three rounds, in pitchers -- Kyle Gibson, Matt Bashore, Billy Bullock and Ben Tootle. Gibson may be the second-best starter the Twins have, but he really hasn't established himself as a quality rotation piece, and the other three are all out of baseball five years later.

In 2010, they drafted Alex Wimmers in the first round and Pat Dean in the third; we won't see either of them in Target Field soon, if ever.

In 2011, first three rounds: Hudson Boyd, Madison Boer, Corey Williams. None are close to the majors.

That's 12 pitchers, all drafted in the first three rounds in consecutive years long enough ago to expect some results, and while the return hasn't been exactly zero, it hasn't been good, either.

There's a web acronym that gets a good deal of repetition among baseball bloggers: TNSTAAPP -- There's No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. The point -- and it's accurate -- is that pitchers are difficult to project and they have a frighteningly high attrition rate, as that list of failed draft picks suggests.

And yet, teams do build championship rotations out of pitching prospects. They do, they really do.

The Twins got most of their starters for their run of division titles that way. Brad Radke, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins were all draft picks; Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano, Eric Milton. Joe Mays, Carlos Silva and Kyle Lohse were all acquired out of other organizations with little or no major league experience.

That magic touch has dried up. The hope is that guys like Alex Meyer, Jose Berrios, Kohl Stewart and Lewis Thorpe will turn it around. But that remains in the future.

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