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Depth Charge

Long-time readers will know that starting pitching depth is a hobby-horse of mine.  I was psyched about the Brewers this time last year, in part because the starting rotation looked so strong--so deep, in fact, that we could part ways with Claudio Vargas with little or no repercussions.

I don't feel the same way about the 2009 Brewers.  You probably know this, but here's what the depth chart looks like at SP:

  • Yovani Gallardo
  • Dave Bush
  • Manny Parra
  • Jeff Suppan
  • Seth McClung
  • Chris Capuano
  • guys like Chris Narveson, Mark DiFelice, and now Chase Wright

I'm perfectly fine with the top three.  It's not the best top three in the league, or even the division, but it's pretty good.  McClung might turn out okay, and we all know what we'll get from Suppan--the transformation of "albatross" into a verb.

Here's another look at that top 6:

  • Gallardo -- 24 IP in 2008, is about to turn 23 years old
  • Bush -- earned a demotion before the all-star break last year
  • Parra -- fell apart after about 150 IP last year following an injury-riddled minor league career
  • Suppan -- CHONE projects him to be 1 run--RUN--above replacement
  • McClung -- hasn't thrown over 110 IP since '02
  • Capuano -- hasn't thrown a pitch in a year, and a May return is on the optimistic side

Now, of course, that's an unnecessarily pessimistic view.  Gallardo should give us lots of innings, and Bush will be fine, if streaky.  Maybe Capuano will come back and be fine, and maybe McClung will handle 150 IP like a champ. 

But...even on the optimistic side, how many innings does that get us?  Let's say we get 175 from Yo, 200 from Bush, 175 from Manny, 150 from Bigseth, and 125 from Cappy.  That's a total of 825.  Last year, our starters gave us 983 IP ... so that leaves 160 more for Suppan.  I'm sure he can give us that many; I'm not sure that we want him to.

I left Suppan out of that calculation for a reason.  At this point, he's basically a replacement-level pitcher, albeit a pricey one.  So, even if everything breaks right, we're going to get 150+ innings of replacement-level starting pitching.  If bad luck strikes, we are quite simply unprepared.  It's not hard to see a situation where Parra has nagging injuries, Gallardo has to rest now and then, and Capuano never makes it back.  In the worst-case scenario, we could be looking at 300 (or way more) innings of replacement-level starting pitching.

In that case, Suppan can't even pitch those innings and let the front office pretend that they've solved the problem.

The big picture

The easiest (and cheapest) way to improve a team is to find the absolute weakest point and improve that.  It's a weird example, but the Orioles were so bad at shortstop last year that bringing in Cesar Izturis is likely to result in a several-win improvement.  Good teams are bound to have strong and weak points, but they can't have gaping holes.

As I see it, the back end of the rotation--whether you call it the #5 starter to replace Supp or the #7 starter to replace whoever doesn't make it--is our gaping hole.  Quite simply: We're not going to get 950-1,000 IP of starting pitching that is significantly above replacement level.

According to CHONE, there are currently four free agent starters available who are likely to be worth 10 runs or more (roughly one win) above replacement:

  • Ben Sheets (+30, based on 25 starts)
  • Randy Wolf (+12)
  • Odalis Perez (+11)
  • Braden Looper (+10)

There must be something seriously scary in Ben's medical reports, because there's not a team in baseball that shouldn't be after him right now.  I wouldn't mind seeing him come back in some form, but I suspect that ship has long since sailed.

That leaves us with the next three.  Wolf seems destined to land in LA.  We kicked the tires on Looper, and apparently the money isn't there.  And for some reason, nobody's talking about Odalis Perez.

The silence leads me to believe that Perez could be had for less than Looper/Garland/Wolf money -- maybe $4 or $5MM on a one-year deal, maybe even less.  He would represent about as close to a lock of a one-win improvement as you can find in February (even this February, short of Manny), and he would even make the bullpen better, likely shifting McClung to relief to start the season.

Why not save money for mid-season?

If you asked the front office why they haven't pulled the trigger yet on Odalis or Looper, you'd probably be told that they're out of money, or that they're leaving some payroll space.  That space, as it was last year, could be used for a mid-season pickup.

There are apparent advantages to waiting until mid-season: More players are available, and the team's needs are clearer.  Actually, though, in the Brewers case, I dispute both points.

  • First, some stars may be available for trade, sure, like Sabathia was last year.  But nobody good is going to be available just for money.
  • Second, I don't need to wait until June to know that we need more starting pitching depth.  We're not going to get more than ~800 IP of better-than-replacement starting.  Ain't gonna happen.  

Think about it another way.  If we make a deal after game #81, we'll need twice as good of a player to make the same impact.  So instead of Odalis at +11, we'll need a +22 player on or around July 1st.  For reference, that's a guy like Ryan Dempster or Jeremy Bonderman.  There'll probably be somebody like that available, but they won't be cheap, in players or money.

And, of course, most deals aren't made on July 1st.  Sabathia notwithstanding, the deadline is August 1st, leaving only one-third of the season.  Thus, to get that +11, we need a +33 player.  CHONE only projects 25 starters in all of baseball at that level--so, basically, we're talking about an ace. I'm guessing we don't want to give up another top prospect to get the same value we could get right now from Odalis Perez.

By now, I think you get my point.  There's a glaring problem.  It's probably not one we can solve with the Chase Wrights of the world.  There are inexpensive, available solutions.  The longer we wait to solve it, the more expensive it gets.

For heaven's sake, Doug, sign another starter.