A Quick Look At The Rotation

At the moment, the Mariners are known to be interested in bringing in two final pieces - a bat and a starting pitcher. We've already talked a lot about the state of the offense and isolated that bat as likely being a righty capable of playing the outfield. The rotation, however, has drawn a considerably lesser amount of attention, and it's for that reason that I think it would behoove us to take a look at what we currently have on hand.

The top of the rotation, right now, should be known to anyone. For the third year in a row, the M's will attempt to field the best 1-2 punch in the league, only this time they'll be doing it with a little more statistical support. Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez. It's all anyone's talking about. Ask the average baseball fan and he'll tell you that the Mariners will go as far as Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez can take them.

But it's behind those two that things become a whole other kind of interesting. Slotting in at #3, right now, is Ryan Rowland-Smith. Then there's Ian Snell. Then there's Jason Vargas. Then, serving as the depth, we find names like Doug Fister, Luke French, Garrett Olson, Nick Hill, and maybe Yusmeiro Petit. The list goes ten names deep, each of them with some argument for why he deserves to break camp with a spot. Each of them but Olson.

Still, the assumption is that, for the time being, the rotation will go RRS/Snell/Vargas. Now, in theory, were the team to go all 2003 on us, we'd see something like the following breakdown:

Felix: 33 starts
Lee: 33
RRS: 32
Snell: 32
Vargas: 32

However, we know that to be unrealistic. Last year's team, for example, gave starts to 12 different pitchers. 11 in 2008. Seven in 2007, but ten in 2006. At some point, the depth is almost certainly going to come into play, and to assume otherwise is to be foolish. So a more probable breakdown would be something like this:

Felix: 32 starts
Lee: 32
RRS: 25
Snell: 25
Vargas: 25
Assorted: 23

The numbers, of course, serving as examples only. The point is, you can't plan on the best-case scenario. You have to assume that, at some point, some guys are going to miss some starts, and you'll have to dip into your reserves. This is something against which teams have to protect themselves.

Here's why this matters: as the Mariners poke around for another starting pitcher, it's tempting to compare different possible names to Jason Vargas. The reality, though, is that a new starting pitcher wouldn't only be taking starts from Jason Vargas unless everybody stayed perfectly healthy and effective. In reality, he would end up taking starts from both Vargas and that pool of other guys currently on the outside looking in.

Let's just go ahead and use the damn Jarrod Washburn example. Let's say the Mariners decide to sign Jarrod Washburn. Washburn would come in and knock Vargas out of the top five. With Jarrod's age and recent history, let's keep things simple and pencil him in for 25 starts. The same 25 starts that we gave to Vargas above.

Now you've taken 25 starts away from Jason Vargas, but at the same time inserted Vargas into the group labeled 'Assorted'. Which means Vargas, as the #6 guy, will get a good number of his starts back, at the expense of guys further down the latter. Guys like, say, Luke French. So in this scenario, you aren't so much replacing Vargas with Washburn as you are replacing some Vargas and some other guys with Washburn.

That matters because it establishes a different baseline. For example (again, just for example), let's say you think Washburn's a two-win guy, Vargas is a one-win guy, and the Assorteds are replacement level. The easy thing to do is to say "adding Washburn adds a win." But if you consider the chaining of the rotation, where Vargas is still able to pick up a number of starts, then, in this example, a more accurate statement would be "adding Washburn adds a win and a half." It changes things. When you're dealing with a starting rotation, a new pitcher doesn't just take a bunch of starts from one guy. He takes a handful of starts from a handful of guys.

Now, this is all much ado about something that, in the end, makes a pretty small difference. And in truth, after Felix/Lee a lot of the projected performances of our starting pitchers kind of run together anyway. But it's still something to keep in mind as we consider the possible benefit of adding another arm. We don't just care about Jason Vargas' projection. We care about everybody's projections, because if the Mariners add an arm, everybody's affected.

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