“You better know who your ninth starter’s going to be”

I’ve been a bit confused by one of Theo’s comments since taking over as President of Baseball Operations.

“We need starting pitching. You can’t take your chances very seriously as a club if you go in to the season without, not just five guys you can point to, but six, seven and eight guys. You better know who your ninth starter’s going to be because you’re going to need him. The numbers show that you’re going to need your ninth starter at some point during the course of the year.

“So we have to build our starting pitching depth. We don’t have a ton of depth beyond the obvious guys who are in the rotation right now. That’s a priority.”

Obviously a team needs depth at starting pitching. Then again, a team needs depth in the bullpen, infield, outfield, and behind the plate. Depth is without a doubt an important part of building a contending team. There will be injuries and you have to replace them with competent ballplayers. But do you really need to know your 9th starter is going to be?

That’s probably overstating it. I really doubt Theo Epstein and/or Jed Hoyer really need to know who the 9th starter is going to be. I think, or rather I’m hopeful, that what he means is that you need depth. I think the Cubs are focusing too much on starting pitching and not enough on offense. There are a couple reasons for this. First, the offense is a lot worse than the pitching staff. Second, there are some high quality starting pitchers who will be available via free agency over the next few years while there is little that will be available offensively. So it’s going to be a lot easier to find pitching in the years to come than it will be to find offensive firepower.

Arguing about which is more important to this team is another issue entirely. It’s something that deserves further exploration, but right now I’m curious why they feel they need to be 9 deep in the rotation. Have the Red Sox ever needed a 9th starter? If so, how much have they had to rely on him?

Before I started looking into this I expected that over the years they surely had to have a 9th and probably even 10th or 11th starter. I expected that happened in not just one year, but multiple years. That being said, I also expected that those starters would make few starts and I think if we looked deeper we’d probably find they were primarily spot starts. I wanted to look into the number of starters the Sox needed each year.

In 2003, Derek Lowe, Pedro Martinez, John Burkett and Tim Wakefield made 29 or more starts. Casey Fossum and Jeff Suppan combined for 24 starts and four others made a combined 14 starts.

The following year Pedro, Lowe, Wakefield, Curt Schilling and Bronson Arroyo each made 29 or more starts. Byung-Hyun Kim made 3 while Pedro Astacio and Abe Alverez each started one game apiece.

In 2005, Wakefield, Arroyo, Matt Clement and David Wells each made 30 or more starts. Wade Miller and Curt Schilling combined for 27. Clement and Miller weren’t the only former Cubs to start a game for the Sox that year. Former top prospect Geremi Gonzalez made 3 of them. John Halama and Lenny DiNardo each started one game. Jonathan Papelbon started 3 time.

The 2006 Red Sox rotation had all kinds of injury problems. 14 different pitchers started a game and only Josh Beckett and Schilling started more than 23.

It’s clear at this point that the Sox have gone 9 or more deep in their rotation several times, but I’m still not convinced it’s something you have to plan for. Seriously, if your 9th starter is taking the ball every 5th day for more than a few turns in the rotation you’re probably in big trouble.

93 times the Red Sox have needed an 8th or higher starter since 2003. In Jed Hoyer’s two years in San Diego he needed an 8th starter 6 times and didn’t have to call on a 9th starter. In 11 seasons at the helm between these two they’ve needed at least and 8th starter 99 times. I’m not sure how many innings those guys have pitched, but I’d estimate fewer than 5 innings per start for that caliber a starter. If we estimate an average of 4.5 innings pitched that’s 445 innings. Roughly 41 innings each season have been pitched by an 8th starter or higher. That’s about what you’d expect to get from your 4th best reliever.

Those 41 innings are mostly from the 8th starter’s position of course. There are significantly fewer thrown from starters worse than that. So far the Cubs have paid no attention to pitching so we have to question whether or not Theo was serious. I highly doubt he cares all that much if he knows the name of the guy who would be the 9th starter. I think what he said is nothing more than emphasizing the need for depth. I don’t believe he or Jed are crazy enough to think a 9th starter is all that valuable. There’s just no reason to believe that they’ve been faced with needing a valuable 9th starter over the course of their careers.

You’re essentially looking for the quality of a middle reliever for your 8th starter. The 9th starter would be even worse. The Cubs currently have on their roster Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Randy Wells who would be sure things for the rotation. If the season opened today the 5th starter would probably be Andrew Cashner or Jeff Samardzija. Casey Coleman has made several big league starts so he’d be the 7th guy. Trey McNutt could make some emergency starts. So could Chris Carpenter, Rafael Dolis and Jay Jackson.

I’d like to see the Cubs go after a really good starting pitcher, but they’ve let two free agents sign with other teams and the only quality starters remaining are Roy Oswalt and maybe Paul Maholm. Yu Darvish is available, but will cost a lot of money. If the Cubs are only interested in adding depth I’m not convinced they don’t already have it. If they want to improve the rotation then signing Roy Oswalt or Yu Darvish would be a good idea.

Speaking of Darvish, it brings up something else that has irritated me. For more than a year now the media and fans have said that Darvish could be “just another Daisuke Matsuzaka.” Dice-K was worth 8.3 rWAR in his first two seasons in the US. He struckout nearly a batter per inning and while his walk rate (4.2 per 9) he still struckout 2 batters per walk. He led the league in hits per 9 in his second season allowing fewer than 7 hits per 9 innings. His ERA+ was 127 over those two years. Then he was hit with some injuries. That happens with pitchers. Any time you sign a pitcher you accept that he could spend a lot of time on the DL. He was never the same after the injuries, but early on he more than lived up to expectations.

Darvish is younger and was a significantly better pitcher in Japan. There really is no comparison between the two, but if the best you have is that Dice-K didn’t live up to expectations you’re wrong. He lived up to them and then got injured. Happens all the time.

This doesn’t mean I want the Cubs to shell out $100 million or more to acquire him. I’m just saying that any pitcher could just be another Dice-K. Dice-K was just another Mark Prior. Mark Prior was just another Kerry Wood and so on.