While Ryan and I were talking on the latest episode of The Pool Shot, it dawned on me that one of the biggest roster question marks heading into Spring Training was the battle for the 5th starter spot. I’m not the quickest learner, apparently. Considering where we were a year ago as The Grand D-backs Experiment was underway, it’s a nice dose of perspective to take stock of how things have changed. Things really have come a long way in a relatively short period of time for the pitching staff.
It sounds as if, however, the aforementioned race for the fifth starter spot has already been decided. That’s not necessarily true, of course. No one’s thrown a pitch a yet. Someone might get hurt. Someone may prove ineffective. Storylines with pitchers are prone to changing with little notice. But as things stand now, Rubby De La Rosa and Robbie Ray are likely to fill spots four and five in the rotation, respectively. Even though Ray is the fifth starter, his spot was and is probably more secure than De La Rosa’s. But De La Rosa is one of Dave Stewart’s guys and it’s Archie Bradley who’ll pay the price as the presumable odd man out. So what the hell do the D-backs do with Archie Bradley to start the season?
Option 1: Send him to Reno
Look, no one wants to hear the dreaded words, “You’ve been assigned to Reno.” Triple-A baseball might sound alright to the bulk of us who dream of a chance to take a professional hack or two, but to a guy who’s young and is hoping to make the Opening Day roster it would surely be a disappointment. There are things Bradley can work on – his fastball command being the biggest priority. But the raw stuff is still good and should play at the highest level. Bradley shouldn’t have too much trouble at AAA if he’s of sound health and he could force his way back into the discussion rather quickly, provided the PCL doesn’t get in his head and he remains free of the shoulder tendinitis that bothered him last year.
Option 2: Put him in the big league bullpen
I’ve been on record as suggesting that Rubby De La Rosa would make a fine reliever. The D-backs want to keep him in the rotation, and it’s fine to give him another shot, but I think that Bradley could also fit that role well by the same logic. He’s got power stuff and fringy command at present with two pitches that stand above his others. If they wanted to direct him to take the fastball and curveball to the bullpen and just throw them as hard as he can, Bradley could find effectiveness. Far less talented pitchers will occupy bullpen spots in the major leagues this season.
The problem is that the bullpen is full, especially after the Tyler Clippard signing. Unless the team wants an eight-man bullpen, there’s not many innings to give up. I’d assume that part of signing/trading for talented starting pitchers was so that the bullpen would be needed less anyways. I’d also assume that if they were to add an eighth man, they’d prefer a second lefty to compliment Andrew Chafin. This all adds up to the idea that putting Bradley in the bullpen might sound like a better idea than it is. Sure, it could allow him to continue to grow against major league hitting, but it looks as if it would be awfully tough to implement.
Option 3: Use a six-man rotation
Archie Bradley is going to pitch for the D-backs in 2016. He’ll either replace someone who gets injured, someone who struggles or someone who gets shut down due to an innings limit. Both Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray will have a tough time eclipsing 150 and 180 innings given their workloads last season, respectively. That can either open the door for Bradley later in the season or the D-backs can space out all of those innings by creating a six-man rotation like the Mets have decided on this year.
Now, the detractors here are obvious. You don’t want to take away innings from Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller necessarily, but there’s a case to be made for preserving Greinke’s health as he ages given the money he’s owed through his age-38 season and well beyond. Ryan will probably fire me because I didn’t suggest a starter by committee approach, but if the team were to get roughly 960 innings out of their starters in 2016, you might be able to give Greinke 190, Miller 180, Corbin 150, De La Rosa 160, Ray 150 and Bradley 130. If someone’s sore, you can skip them more easily, too. There’s a way to do it if the team really wanted to.
Unfortunately, it does put a crunch on the roster. Another pitcher in the rotation definitely means a seven-man bullpen and takes away a bench spot for Chip Hale. Given the bench depth is somewhat thin as is, at least in terms of impact pinch-hitting options, taking another spot away may not be the most sound strategy.
Reality: Up and down, and probably up again
If I had to guess right now, without seeing anyone take the mound yet this calendar year, I’d guess that Bradley heads to the minors to start the year, then comes up at the first sign of trouble. Since he has options left, the team will likely use him on an as-needed basis unless he can really force their hand through strong performance. De La Rosa can’t be optioned to the minors, so he stays. Ray can be optioned but he provides another lefty and would appear primed to build on a breakthrough campaign. For one reason or another, these two will most likely make the Opening Day rotation and Bradley will not.
And this gets back to something that we’ve talked about before. Roster problems usually work themselves out. It’s easy to project, predict and pencil in our own favorite rosters, but at the end of the day Chip Hale will make his decision and let the rest unfold on the diamond. Archie Bradley is going to get chances to prove he belongs, but even though he won a job last March, I wouldn’t necessarily bet that he does the same this year. He missed a lot of winnings in 2015. It’ll be another uphill climb for the former top prospect, and that’s okay because he’ll get his chances once again in 2016. We just don’t know how yet.
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