A Labor of Love

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You may have seen this earlier, as the Tampa Bay Rays work on their whole bullpen day within the rotation for the entire season, but this time taking it to yet another level:

The idea is to ensure that the rotation is composed of the best starters that can go at least six or seven innings, allowing the bullpen to piece together another turn in the rotation for a team that might not have five usable starting pitchers. Of course it doesn’t always work out, but so far it seems to have been adequate for the Rays’ needs. And of course, the Rays have their own responses:

I do like Sergio Romo, as a Bay Area native and fan of the San Francisco Giants (for which Romo was a key member of their World Series winning clubs) and also because of his personality. But I think Zack Cozart might have a point other than the part where it’s weird to face the same “starter” twice in as many days. Over on Twitter, soon after Cozart’s initial comments, many very smart baseball minds suggested that this may create yet another labor issue as Major League Baseball and the Players Association butt heads before their next collective bargaining:

Teams will use whatever information they can to avoid having to pay a player more money. We see this when major league-ready players are held down in the minors longer than necessary, we see it when players go to arbitration, and we see it when free agents try to land contracts. On every stat-tracking site, there’s a column for pitchers labeled “GS” for games started. Right now, [Ryan] Yarbrough’s column has a three in it. He has appeared in 11 total games. He was effectively a starter on Saturday despite Romo getting credit for the start since he went 6 1/3 innings against the Angels, but he didn’t get the additional bump in the GS column, which has the potential to depress his salary throughout his career. Yarbrough has effectively “started,” lasting at least four innings in eight of those 11 games. But Andrew Kittredge got credit for the start several times, going two innings ahead of Yarbrough in a few of those games.

Swinging over to the Chicago Cubs, we know that the taxi squad has actually been quite useful, although there are some concerns for overuse (for example, I think it’s rare to find a game where Steve Cishek doesn’t come in for at least a batter) as we are only in May. I think as the starters lengthen out and get more consistent, the bullpen usage will slow down so they can get a breather, but so far so good in terms of health and production.

Where this is relevant might involve Mike Montgomery, who has shown that he can be an effective back-end starter as a Cub and who we thought would get the chance at some point.  That hasn’t really materialized for poor Mike so far, but he’s been a team player about it, even after the weather eliminated a would-be start during the weekend doubleheader. I’m guessing he will get his chances when the Cubs start running on fumes and off days become less plentiful once all these makeup games start running into each other.

It is true, however, that the cases of guys like Yarbrough and Montgomery allow teams to manipulate the arbitration system to depress salaries as they head closer to free agency. The path of the long-reliever and non-closers is such that they can very rarely rack up saves, even if Monty has the most important save in the history of Cubdom. There’s really nothing the player himself can do about it other than passively aggressively grouse about it to the press or his agent, because the team will use him however they desire as long as it doesn’t blatantly cause injury. After all, the team’s job is two-fold:

  1. Win as many games as possible;
  2. …but do it while spending as little money as reasonable.

Now, this shouldn’t affect the strategy too much in the long run. Managers should be able to put a pitcher in the outfield to take advantage of platoons while saving a bullpen usage (a la Sean Marshall), and to also maximize matchups at any point throughout the game. But given the 25 spots on the active roster (and the fact that September rosters are limited to the 40-man), there’s only so much teams can do to try to reduce the number of starters they need. Even in extreme cases, there needs to be at least a starting eight besides the pitcher, a backup infielder, a backup outfielder, and a backup catcher. And the bullpen arms need time to recover, even with a taxi squad with options, the disabled list, and what have you. Roster rules right now at least prevent the team from going full bullpen.

It’s up to the players union to make sure they don’t give up too much more, after having been effectively pantsed in the last negotiations that led up to the weirdest offseason we have seen in a while. The game of baseball will evolve, of course, but there should probably be a balance between what can be done with the personnel and what said personnel deserve to be paid. There’s something to be said for specialization to maximize matchups, but ultimately we pay to see our favorite pitchers, and if those guys only play for a fraction of the game, then that would dilute the experience. Perhaps he didn’t know it at the time, but Zack Cozart might be right about the diluted experience being bad for baseball.


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About Rice Cube

Rice Cube is the executive vice president of snark at World Series Dreaming. He loves all things Cubs, with notable exceptions (specifically, the part of Cubs fandom that pisses him off). Follow on Twitter at cubicsnarkonia

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