Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
The Kentucky Wildcats have dominated college basketball this winter with a simple yet radical approach–use not one, but two “starting fives”.
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In order to accommodate the almost obscene volume of talent he has accumulated, for much of the year coach John Calipari has used two groups of five players who share playing time, usually entering and exiting the game as discrete units.
It’s a concept that’s been used before, but rarely with such immaculate results.
Kentucky’s scheme, while not directly transferable to most sports, underscores an inescapable truth–at the highest levels of competition, it takes depth to succeed.
The more, the better.
This is especially true of major league baseball, where each team plays 162 regular season games with the hope of qualifying for the playoffs. If they succeed, the reward could be another month of high intensity competition.
Throughout that physically demanding journey, a team’s five-man rotation rightly gets a lot of attention. That’s because strong starting pitching usually wins the day, particularly in the post-season.
What’s often overlooked, though, is most teams use about ten different starting pitchers throughout the year, usually because of injuries or poor front-line performance.
Thus the auxiliary hurlers who augment the first five are routinely called upon to throw a substantial number of innings, and have an understated impact on the fortunes of the club.
So while the Detroit Tiger starting rotation is set going into spring training with David Price, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Shane Greene, and Alfredo Simon, it’s instructive to look at the “second five” who stand behind them, as they will undoubtedly play a major role in the marathon season that lies ahead.
Here are five likely candidates, each of whom is on the team’s 40-man roster.
Lobstein is a “touch and feel” lefty who appeared briefly with the Tigers last year while fashioning a 4.35 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. Along the way he made seven appearances, pitched 39 innings, and generally looked comfortable in a major league uniform.
The downside is he had a mediocre 2014 at AAA Toledo (4.07 ERA; 1.48 WHIP), has average stuff at best (tops out at 90 mph with his fastball), and at 25 years old is no longer a kid.
Nonetheless, he may be the first guy to be handed the ball in case one of the starting five can’t go.
There are approximately 300,000 male deer and 56,000 farms in the state of Michigan.
But there’s only one Buck Farmer, and his job is to harvest outs, not whitetails, from the mound at Comerica Park.
Farmer, a 6’4″ Georgian, was an emergency call-up last summer and appeared in four games.
His rise through the ranks was meteoric, as he began the year in A ball (West Michigan) and worked his way to AA Erie before his surprising promotion to Detroit.
Farmer’s repertoire is built upon a firm fastball, which sits at 92-93 mph, and runs up to 95. He also mixes in an effective change-up, while the rest of his arsenal is still under construction.
Farmer projects as a back-of-the-rotation starter or a reliever. In fact, depending on how the bullpen battles evolve this spring, he may be pressed into duty there as a short-term solution.
One thing is certain if he pitches well for Detroit–with a name like “Buck Farmer”, it won’t take long before a cleverly named fan club appears.
If he instead chooses to go by his given name “George”, expect fan club interest to dwindle accordingly.
Ryan is a soft-tossing lefty cut from the same cloth as Mike Maroth.
He throws in the high 80’s, but can touch 91 mph. Last year Ryan had a combined minor league ERA of 3.95 and a WHIP of 1.24. He also pitched in six outings for the Tigers last fall, yielded ten hits in ten innings, and finished with a solid 2.61 ERA .
Like Lobstein, he must compensate for his below average velocity with guile, speed changes and command.
It also helps his cause if he draws an umpire who considers the black edge of home plate the pitcher’s domain.
When those variables coalesce, Ryan can retire major league hitters.
Short of that, it’s probably going to be somewhat of a slog.
The 24-year-old VerHagen is another right handed Tiger prospect with a low major league ceiling.
Like a lot of guys, he throws in the low 90’s with average secondary stuff. In his one appearance last summer against Cleveland, he absorbed the loss while lasting five innings and allowing three earned runs.
He returned to AAA Toledo following that outing, suffered a recurrence of a back injury, and was shut down for the season.
His minor league totals at Toledo included an ERA of 3.67 and a WHIP of 1.29. Tellingly, he struck out only 63 hitters in 110 innings, which indicates he lacks a put-away pitch.
Like Farmer, he projects as a back end starter, or failing that, a reliever.
Smith also had a cameo with the Tigers last summer, as he appeared in ten games in a relief role. He had an ERA of 5.40 and a WHIP of 1.54 during that interim.
His minor league line was better, as he had an ERA of 3.45 and a WHIP of 1.36 in 34 appearances, likewise all of which were in relief.
The 25-year-old sits in the low to mid-90’s with his four-seamer, but like the others in this group needs to sharpen his whole repertoire to stick in the bigs.
The Bottom Line
You don’t necessarily need a power arm to pitch in the big leagues.
But it helps.
None of the prospects listed above has elite velocity, and each can be fairly categorized at this point as a fringe major league pitcher.
But the good news is as a group they’re still young enough to hone their game as they gather experience.
Though not necessarily commonplace, a mechanical adjustment can add two or three mph to a fastball, with a dramatic uptick in effectiveness. Likewise, a developing hurler can add a pitch or refine his command, resulting in a meaningful push forward.
Though he’s not a pitcher, one need look no farther than Detroit’s own J.D. Martinez as an example of what can happen when it all comes together for a player.
Having said that, by major league standards this is a fairly undistinguished group of secondary pitchers.
There are no top or mid-rotation prospects ready to burst upon the scene, and most likely no one from this group will go north with the team in April as a starting pitcher.
To return to our friends in Lexington, Kentucky, when their “second starting five” takes the court, some of them–despite their reserve status–jam the ball into the basket with impunity.
Unfortunately, there are no such slam dunks in this group of Tiger pitchers.