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The Hot Stove Corner, Part 9: Starting Pitching

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NAME     W  L    IP    H  ER  HR  BB  SO WHIP  ERA 
Webb    14 12 229.0  229  90  21  59 172 1.26 3.54 
Vazquez 11 15 215.2  223 106  35  46 192 1.25 4.42 
Halsey   8 12 154.0  182  77  19  39  80 1.44 4.50 
Ortiz    5 11 115.0  147  88  18  65  46 1.84 6.89 
Estes    7  8 123.2  132  66  15  45  63 1.43 4.80 
Vargas   9  6 117.0  120  60  20  38  89 1.35 4.62 
Total*  55 65 993.1 1070 505 131 318 664 1.40 4.58 
NL Rank  9 13     6    3       3   9   9   11   12
* = Includes Gosling (five starts), Nippert (three) 

2005 review
It didn't take long for reality to nibble regarding the shaky nature of our rotation. 1.2 innings on Opening Day, to be precise, before our anticipated ace, $11m man, Javier Vazquez was unceremoniously given the hook, after allowing ten hits and seven runs. That forearm to the throat of our hopes for the year was a portent of things to come, as Vazquez would swing between near-brilliance and utterly ineffectual. Of his 33 starts, he allowed zero or one earned run in seven - but more than five, almost as often. And nearly one in every six hits he allowed, left the park.

Fortunately, Brandon Webb cemented his position and was a rock in the #2 slot. The major improvement was the slashing of the walks, down to 2.32/9IP, from 5.15/9IP in 2005. It helped keep his ERA to 3.54, and this was skewed by a poor July, the only month he was above that figure. His ERA over the final eleven starts was 2.60, proving he wasn't wearing down. He was brutal on right-handed hitters, who batted .228, but lefties did hit .298 off Webb, so he'll likely see more of them in 2006.

Russ Ortiz was a disaster, there's no other word for it. He was on the DL for the first time in his career, missing two months, but when he could pitch, was dreadful. Ortiz lasted barely five innings on average, managing just six quality starts in 22 attempts, and went 1-9 after May 18. His appearances were as notorious for his failures, as his casual denials afterwards that anything had gone wrong. But the hard fact is, we paid Russ $1.475m for every win, making him arguably the biggest pitching bust in baseball.

At the back of the rotation, Estes also lost time through injury, but was about what you'd expect from a #4. Halsey was awesome or awful for weeks at a time: from May through August, his monthly ERAs were either below three or above seven (2.82, 7.86, 2.20, 7.16). Claudio Vargas was a surprising waiver-wire baby: he had a great spell where he allowed 15 earned runs in 60.2 innings, but wore down badly, with an ERA of 6.91 over his his final seven starts. And a quick nod to Dustin Nippert, who came up from Double-A to pitch three games at the end: ten hits in 14.2 innings is good, but 13 walks showed why he is still a work in progress.

2006 Possibilities

Free Agents
This was the winter of silly money, with the demand for starting pitching far outstripping supply. The Diamondbacks, wisely, opted not to get involved, as the few decent names available commanded boatloads of cash, and even mediocre pitchers went for above market value. The poster child for this was A.J. Burnett, who parlayed 49 career wins into a five-year, $55m contract with the suddenly free-spending Blue Jays.

Even Estaban Loaiza, with a career ERA+ of 99, cashed in, getting a three-year $21.4m deal in Oakland, a decision that had many scratching their heads - at 34, it's not as Loaiza is a candidate to get better. Yes, even lower-end pitching could not be found cheaply: Scott Elarton, owner of a 5.10 career ERA after seven seasons, was still able snag a multi-year deal from Kansas, at four million per. Similarly, Brett Tomko, who has one year with an ERA+ above 100 since 1997, signed for $8.7 over two years with the Dodgers. Sitting on the sidelines was probably the best thing the D'backs could have done.

Trades
With Javier Vazquez demanding a trade, and Shawn Estes filing for free agency, by mid-November, it was almost certain the Diamondbacks would have to fill two spots in their rotation. Vazquez wanted to be closer to the East coast for family reasons, and there were plenty of suitors. At various points, rumours included the Nationals (Ryan Church, Jamey Carroll and a minor leaguer), Astros (Willy Taveras), Cubs (Corey Patterson) and Tigers (Curtis Granderson and Joel Zumaya).

However, given the free-agent market insanity noted above, a trade was the obvious alternative to get a starter back. Thus, the Mets and Kris Benson were the focus of much early discussions, but as Christmas approached, the focus shifted to the White Sox. Initially, the focus was on Garland or Contreras, but on December 14th, it was announced that, as well as Chris Young, the D'backs were getting Orlando Hernandez, the injury-prone but occasionally effective starter of indeterminate age.

The other valuable chip the D'backs had was Troy Glaus, and similarly, it appears the objective of the front office was to ensure a starting pitcher came back as part of any deal. The Red Sox were candidates - in the light of subsequent events, Bronson Arroyo was probably the most likely component there - but in the end, Toronto convinced Glaus to waive his no-trade clause. In return, we received Orlando Hudson and returning writer, Einstein fan, and the forgotten pitcher from Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, Miguel Batista.

Prospects
In contrast to the wealth of promise at most positions, starting pitching is likely the weakest area of the organization - at least in immediate terms, with only Nippert really on the horizon as a credible starter. He missed the first two months of 2005, coming back from Tommy John surgery, but promply blew away hitters in Tennessee, with a 2.38 ERA in 18 starts, keeping them to a .226 average. At 6'7", he uses his height well, and will probably be second up (after Halsey) on the bus from Tucson, when the major-league arms fail or fall off.

Though TEP may help the Sidewinders' hitters look good, it's brutal on starting pitching. The best season ERA of any player with 10+ starts was Jon Cannon's 4.17. However, his walking of 43 hitters in only 73.1 innings is an issue that needs to be addressed. Edgar Gonzalez [4.37] and Chris Michalak [4.47] were next in line. Things were better down at Tennessee, where besides Nippert, both Adam Bass and Enrique Gonzalez posted sub-4.00 ERAs. The latter struck out 146 in 161.1 innings, and might start 2006 with a promotion - he is definitely a name that may be on the radar at Chase Field in a couple of years.

Down in the lower reaches (Lancaster, to be precise), we find Garrett Mock, who has been disappointing so far. Baseball America said, "Mock has a full arsenal, touching 94-95 mph with his four-seam fastball while mixing in a 88-91 cutter with excellent movement. His slider and curveball are both quality offerings, and he commands all of his pitches well." But 202 hits in 174.1 innings of High-A ball doesn't seem, even in a notorious hitter's park, to prove he knows what to do with these skills. He'll start 2006 up at Lancaster, and will need to show he has full use of his stuff.

Matt Chico was a pleasant surprise, with a 3.76 ERA in 18 starts; however, he struggled at Double-A, going 1-7 and posting a 5.98 ERA. The story was similar for A.J. Shappi. He was easily the best of the bunch at South Bend, with an 11-1 record, and a 2.86 ERA to match, but hit a wall on moving up a grade to High-A, where his ERA was 5.10 in twelve starts. Finally, Kyle Wright was the "ace" in Yakima, though a 4.22 ERA and one win in 14 starts would seem a bit of a stretch of the term.

Summary + Prediction
There are just too many questionmarks for me to be optimistic about our starting rotation this year. From top to bottom, there are issues at every spot:

  1. Brandon Webb. Hudson will vacuum up those ground-balls but is Webb ready to be our ace? Some of his peripherals (such as his K/9 rate) show cause for concern.

  2. Russ Ortiz. Can he bounce-back from a wretched 2006? Or are we stuck with his awfulness for the next three years?

  3. Miguel Batista. Will he handle the transition back from closer to a starting pitcher?

  4. Orlando Hernandez. How long before the arm of this forty-something collapses with a sound like a grand piano falling into a coal-mine?

  5. The fifth spot. Who is it? In spring training, Vargas has had the better results, but there are rumblings Brenly may look past those, and give Halsey the nod. We might know by Friday.

If I were pushed, I'd say the answers were yes, a bit but not enough, shouldn't be a problem, not very long, and Vargas respectively. But we are definitely one good pitcher - preferably two - from being any kind of significant contenders. If all goes well, we might be there or thereabouts in the NL West; but as the Padres found out last year, you need more than one decent arm when you reach the playoffs.