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The Importance Of (Rotation) Depth

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The average team gets nearly 25% of its starts from pitchers who don't start the year in the rotation. Taking proper precautions to avoid disaster in those 30-40 starts can be just as important as making marginal improvements in the middle of your rotation.

-Jeff Sackmann, THT, 1/17/07

Starting Rotation:

Felix Hernandez
Jarrod Washburn
Miguel Batista
Horacio Ramirez
Jeff Weaver

Sixth Starter Candidates:

Cha Baek
Jake Woods
Jorge Campillo
Justin Lehr

(Possibly) Ready By August/September:

Ryan Feierabend
Brandon Morrow

Still On The Radar:

Travis Blackley
Yorman Bazardo
Jesse Foppert

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Every year around this time fans start to draw up their rosters and compare them to those of league rivals to see where they stand. And every year the issue most frequently overlooked is that of relative depth. In some respects, depth is the new OBP, at least as far as fans are concerned - it's an obscenely underrated aspect of roster management that can have a significant impact on a team's final record. Where would the Cardinals have been without Chris Duncan or Player A? The Mets without John Maine? What if the Red Sox had a contingency plan instead of collapsing as their DL stints snowballed?

Not that you can necessarily blame people for underestimating depth's importance. Because injuries can never be predicted with absolute certainty, they're generally considered bad luck, the sort of thing without which a given team "would've done a lot better." Most fans don't get that every team eventually has to reach beyond the Opening Day lineup and rotation, and that smart front offices plan for this ahead of time by stocking the bench, bullpen, and AAA affiliate with useful stopgaps. If somebody looks back and blames injuries for a lost season, usually it's the front office's own fault for not addressing the problem beforehand.

Nowhere is depth more important than in the starting rotation. The 2003 Mariners were the first team since 1966 to go all year with the same five starters. The point being, a team that doesn't keep a worthwhile #6 hanging around is pretty much asking for a miracle. Go read Sackmann's article; 24 of 30 teams last year needed at least 22 starts from guys who weren't in the Opening Day top five. The average team basically had an entire rotation spot devoted to depth. That's a lot of playing time, and what happens in those innings is no small matter.

Which brings us to the 2007 Mariners. Ask anyone and they'll tell you that, Felix aside, the rotation's as hopelessly mediocre as they come. And those people are right. We have a #1 in training backed up by four #5's, which is another way of saying that while most of these guys might be able to keep us in games, they won't win them by themselves. Not necessarily a big problem since the lineup's going to score a lot of runs, but it's certainly not something to celebrate.

That said, the "strength" of this group - if it has one - is its relative interchangeability with the organizational depth. At some point, some of these guys are going to have to miss a few starts. And as long as Felix isn't one of them, we shouldn't be much worse off, even in the event of (say) a torn labrum or mild decapitation. Washburn, Batista, Ramirez, and Weaver are all guys who should hover somewhere around an RA of 5.00-5.25 (although Ramirez might be way worse). Which is approximately the same range as at least three or four guys we'll have sitting around in the bullpen or Tacoma looking for more Major League innings. The Mariners could conceivably lose four starters at the same time and still be only a win or so worse over the course of a month. That's the very definition of depth. As long as nothing happens to Felix, this team should be well equipped to handle anything horrible that happens to the rest of its rotation.

(Note that injuries aren't the only thing that could result in missed starts. If Weaver sucks, he's only on a one-year contract, so he gets dumped. If Batista sucks, he can move to the bullpen for a little while. If/when Ramirez sucks, maybe he can relieve as well. If Washburn sucks, um, I don't know. If Felix sucks, God help us all. Anyway, the point is that there's no sense of organizational loyalty to this rotation, so if somebody isn't helping the team, something's probably going to change.)

Of course, what they don't have is a hot-shot prospect on the fast track who can make a big splash should someone become hurt or ineffective. There's no Francisco Liriano or Cole Hamels anywhere in the system. Feierabend and Morrow are the two guys closest to matching the profile, and on top of neither being all that close to ML-ready, Feierabend just doesn't have impact stuff, and Morrow still has to prove that he can be healthy and effective against high-level competition. If someone in the rotation needs to be dropped, we're not going to get a shot in the arm - we're just going to get a continuation of the status quo. Barring an unexpected fluke or breakthrough, Felix and a group of mediocrities is the best we can hope for.

The 2007 Mariners are well set up to be exactly what the front office wanted - a group of generally dependable C's led by a few (hopeful) A+'s. If any of the support players go down, particularly on the mound, they can be replaced on the fly, and if something happens to one or two of the stars, then, oh well, that's the inherent risk in this approach. This may not be the roster I would've built if I had my druthers, but that's where we stand, and really, it's not so bad. Good Healthy Felix makes 2007 a season with hope. And, right now, that's all I need.