After the Wade Miley trade was completed, GM Dave Stewart indicated that Josh Collmenter, Jeremy Hellickson, Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster were penciled into the rotation. Let’s put problems with that aside and accept, for the moment, that that’s true — what can we expect for the fifth slot?
The leading contenders for that spot are probably Chase Anderson and Trevor Cahill, but they’re not alone. Vidal Nuno has a strong claim after a strong D-backs performance in 2014, and dark horse Andrew Chafin will almost certainly get a look as a starter in the spring. Add to that the fact that this particular front office wasn’t the one that relegated Randall Delgado to the bullpen, and one starts to see why Daniel Hudson is unlikely to get stretched out as a starter in spring training.
So who will it be? Acknowledging that there’s no way that Patrick Corbin will make the Opening Day rotation, let’s take a quick tour of the options. We’ll follow up over the coming days with some more detailed looks at each of the possibilities.
Anderson is in many ways the leading candidate; the new front office has yet to make a move that prioritizes 2015 over 2016/2017, and if Anderson isn’t given the chance to take a step forward, he will be taking a step back. As you’ll recall, Anderson put up a number of good-not-great seasons in the minors up through Double-A in 2012, after which he got rocked in a shortened 2013 season at Reno. Demoted back to Double-A to start 2014, Anderson thoroughly dominated his Southern League competition for six starts (0.69 ERA, 8.77 K/9, and a superb 1.38 BB/9) before getting installed in Phoenix as part of the D-backs pitching shakeup after the April Apocalypse.
If you’re like me and you love the objective side of the game, you love pitching unicorns like Anderson, who gets by with a plus-plus changeup. Actually it’s two changeups, which is cool, and which really underscores the point that maybe his pitch selection would be optimized if he threw changeups even more frequently. Still, though, as Eno Sarris wrote last month, Anderson is a testament to what can be accomplished with one elite non-fastball pitch and basically nothing else.
In many ways, Anderson is not a fit for the D-backs right now; he’s not as much of a fly ball pitcher as Hellickson, Collmenter or Nuno, but he gets more than his fair share and could see his Chase Field and Coors Field performance suffer as a result. From a win cycle point of view, however, Anderson is the best bet of the bunch to be an important part of the 2017 rotation. There’s some appeal to keeping him down for enough of the year to decrease the chances that he’ll become a Super-Two player eligible for arbitration before the 2017 season, but if investment in the future is the important consideration, Anderson is the leading candidate.
As you saw in Jeff’s piece sizing up the rotation, it’s Cahill out of the starters – all starters, including the ones penciled in – who is projected by Steamer (and FanGraphs’ Depth Charts) to have the highest Wins Above Replacement mark this season. That’s mostly about the projection system’s lack of confidence in all of the other guys, but it’s still at least one indication that Cahill could be a serviceable starter in 2015.
It’s hard to blame Chase Field for Cahill’s struggles, since he is very much a ground ball pitcher, but perhaps he has tried to be too fine. Cahill has seemed to be at his best when aiming generally at the bottom of the zone and letting his sinker do the rest, but for the most part, he’s either on or off, frequently at stretches within the same game and sometimes even at stretches within an inning. Since it’s inconsistent command that seems to do Cahill in, there’s little reason to think his stuff will play up in the bullpen; he did do remarkably better in that role in 2014 (3.04 ERA, versus 6.31 ERA as a starter), but that may partly be explained by the fact that when a reliever struggles, he’s more likely to get pulled right away.
Without a roster crunch in the way, the best-case scenario for the D-backs with Cahill would be for him to see some success early in the season, and then get traded abnormally early – say, late May – when Archie Bradley, Corbin or both are elbowing their way into the rotation. As things stand, it’s highly unlikely that a team would take on the $12.75M still owed to Cahill unless they develop a more glaring need through injury and Cahill is seeing some success. Multiple teams will deal with injury in 2015, so that’s not the main variable. Instead, it’s whether Cahill actually will succeed, and even before that, whether he’ll ever get the chance to do so.
Like Anderson, Nuno is projected by Steamer to rack up an ERA just over 4.00 this season. Also like Anderson, he comes with a boatload of team control. Unlike many pitchers in recent memory, Nuno did substantially better after joining the D-backs (Yankee Stadium is no picnic, but not as hard on lefties). So why, then, would the D-backs give up on Vidal so soon?
Maybe it’s that Nuno doesn’t feel like a good pitcher. We don’t know what the D-backs’ internal evaluation of Nuno was at the time of the Brandon McCarthy trade, but it certainly seemed to me that for the team, it was purely a matter of divesting itself of McCarthy’s salary — and that Nuno was just a convenient placeholder in a lost season. Still, it’s hard to shrug off Nuno’s Collmenter-like performance with the team last year, a 14-start stretch in which he averaged six innings per start with decent control, a surprisingly decent strikeout rate, and a 3.76 ERA.
There is, nonetheless, some indication that Nuno was a little lucky, on the back of a .261 BABIP (.301 with Yankees). And the current regime didn’t trade for him — after targeting power in Webster and RDLR, it’s hard to see Stewart and others endorsing Nuno’s sub-90mph fastball, even if he might otherwise be the only southpaw suiting up. As for what actually happens to him, your guess is as good as mine; he’s a welcome sixth or seventh starter pitching out of the Reno rotation, but probably won’t fetch much in trade — and he even has competition to be #6 or #7.
Anderson, Cahill and Nuno are the most likely candidates to be the #5 in April, but not the only ones. Considering Delgado will almost certainly be the long man in the bullpen, the team has little incentive to not stretch him out a bit in the spring to see what he has, making him a more likely April starter than Hudson.
After an iffy 4.26 ERA 2013, Delgado got almost no rope in 2014, getting pulled after two starts in April in which he threw just 7.1 total innings. He also made a cameo in September for two starts — not stretched out enough to pitch deep into those games — but as a reliever, Delgado was almost the same pitcher (4.40 ERA) that he was the year before.
As a reliever, Delgado almost completely dumped his sinker in favor of throwing more four-seam fastballs, and maybe that was a mistake. But it certainly did not seem to be the case that relying more on the four-seam (53.48% of pitches in 2014, versus 11.75% in 2013) translated to superior results.
I have no bloody idea why Delgado is still on the D-backs roster, but not because I think he’s bad — because it seems hard to believe that none of the other 29 teams have made a palatable offer. Guy who was once well thought of, who was fringy as a starter with the team that seems to cause most pitchers to do worse? Whether he’s traded or not, however, we’re unlikely to see him in the D-backs rotation.
Chafin put up a fantastic 2013 season for Double-A Mobile, pitching to a 2.85 ERA in 126.1 innings. That came on the back of good command (2.92 BB/9), but a strikeout rate as low as his (6.20 K/9) prevented him from vaulting atop any prospect lists. As he did in High-A and when he repeated Double-A in 2014, he had a superb HR rate, one of those outliers so extreme that it almost has to be the product of both skill and luck. If it was skill, it partially deserted him in his Triple-A time last season, but not completely.
Still, with a 5.34 ERA in 92.2 Triple-A innings, it’s not like Chafin is knocking the door. Two of Chafin’s three starts with the D-backs toward the end of the year were quite good, but despite Reno still being kind of a pitching hellhole, more seasoning is probably understood to be a good idea.
What happens next with Chafin, though, is going to be interesting. Assuming he misses out for the April rotation, a lack of real and immediate success at Triple-A could mean that the organization completely passes him by as a starter. If there’s no room for him right away, it seems unlikely that more room will be found once Bradley, Corbin, Hudson and Bronson Arroyo slip back into the big picture (especially with Braden Shipley and Aaron Blair not all that far behind). The chances of Chafin making the Opening Day rotation are very low, but because of the lack of a later window and lack of importance of service time, I consider him a more likely candidate than Bradley.
Ah, finally. Of all of the pitchers considered here, only Bradley has a legitimate shot to pitch as something better than a #4 starter at some point in his career. But: service time.
With few exceptions, players can be controlled by major league clubs while on their rosters for at least six years, but the definition of “year” can be tricky. There are typically around 182 days in the season (last year being an obvious exception), with teams getting rest days sprinkled in; a service time year per the CBA, however, is just 172 days. If the team waits until April 15 or so to call up Bradley, they control him through the 2021 season, as opposed to the 2020 season — and that’s a pretty big deal, even if he would certainly be a “Super Two” player eligible for arbitration in 2018 instead of 2019.
Those considerations are exactly what they were last year. It’s not that I think Bradley will get called up on April 15, because I don’t. It’s just that even if spring training is perfect for Bradley — even if he pitches to a 1.00 ERA and his command looks as crisp or crisper than it did at the beginning of 2013 — the team will still keep him down a couple of weeks. Maybe they’ll use Delgado for a couple of turns, or maybe not, since the team doesn’t need a fifth starter until April 14th anyway. But we can write him out of the fifth starter chase for now, if only on a technicality.
Of course, the fifth starter derby will depend on spring training performance, will get impacted by injuries, and probably isn’t even a fifth starter derby. If Webster or RDLR look like their flaming out instead of flamethrowing in March, there could be more than one spot up for grabs. An overview of the fifth starter candidates, however, is uninspiring on quality but impressive on quantity. When it comes to the back end of a rotation, that’s not so bad.
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