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Starting Pitching: More MLB Teams Embracing Small Market Model

MLB NewsRegarding the subject of signing free agent starting pitchers, it is “buyer beware” for Major League teams. It is rare that a club gets what it pays for. Ask the San Francisco Giants, who signed Barry Zito to a seven-year, $126 million deal that expires this season (if they do not exercise the left-hander’s $18 million option for 2014.

Call the New York Mets about Johan Santana, the Boston Red Sox regarding John Lackey or the Chicago Cubs, who signed Carlos Zambrano to an exorbitant contract and ended up paying him millions to take the mound for the Miami Marlins.

The aforementioned cases are just a small sampling of examples that illustrate is why most franchises are focusing on developing homegrown arms to stock the rotation and refraining from trading highly regarded pitching prospects.

The Tampa Bay Rays are partly responsible for shaping how many ballclubs are now crafting their rotations. Out of necessity – since they are a small-market team with limited revenues – the Rays selected pitching, pitching and more pitching in the early rounds of the draft for several years, and their player development personnel transformed many of these arms into quality starters, like James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore.

Fueled by pitching, the Rays transformed themselves from a perennial cellar-dweller into the 2008 American League champions. Since then, they have remained a contender and secured playoff berths in two of the last four seasons because of their deep and talented rotation.

Other teams have taken notice. Seattle, for example, has turned down numerous trade offers for Felix Hernandez because he is one of the rare true aces in the game. The Mariners farm system currently features three of the top starting pitching prospects in Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Danny Hultzen.

Even when teams trade young veteran pitching away for offense, they tend to require starting pitching prospects in return. Tampa Bay’s deal with Kansas City earlier this offseason is an example. Desperate for offense, the Rays landed outfielder Wil Myers in a move that sent Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals. Tampa Bay also acquired promising pitching prospects Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery. Odorizzi will compete for a rotation spot in spring training.

The Arizona Diamondbacks are another indicator that Major League teams are striving to horde young pitching instead of opening their wallet for free agent arms. The Diamondbacks have a deep and young rotation with Ian Kennedy, Brandon McCarthy, Trevor Cahill and Wade Miley. Of that group, only McCarthy arrived via free agency. Kennedy and Cahill was brought in via trades while Miley was developed by the Damondbacks.

This offseason, Arizona dealt right-handed starting pitching prospect Trevor Bauer to Cleveland in a three-team transaction that yielded the club shortstop Didi Gregorius. Though the Diamondbacks have the aforementioned starters – plus prospects Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs competing for rotation spots, and the promising Archie Bradley in the low minors – they made sure to get 22-year-old Randall Delgado in Thursday’s trade that found Justin Upton and Chris Johnson heading to Atlanta.

There are a few teams who are not demonstrating the philosophy of holding onto high-profile starting pitching prospects.

The Los Angeles Dodgers opened the Brink’s truck and paid the remaining salaries of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett last summer while throwing in Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster for good measure. Both prospects have frontline starter potential. The Dodgers also packaged right-hander Nathan Eovaldi to the Marlins for Hanley Ramirez.

The Detroit Tigers surrendered right-handed starting pitching prospect Jacob Turner to Miami in a 2012 trade deadline deal for Anibal Sanchez. Then the Tigers gave the 28-year-old right-hander a five-year, $88 million contract this offseason even though he has a career record of 48-51 with a 3.75 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP.

Toronto does not seem too fond of its high-ceiling pitching prospects. The Blue Jays have traded Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino, Asher Wojciechowski and Joe Musgrove in three separate deals over the last year. The club has opted to a “win it all now” approach by crafting a rotation around the often-injured Johnson, the veteran workhorse Buehrle, 38-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey along with previous trade acquisition Brandon Morrow and the Homegrown Ricky Romero.

Critics bash the Marlins for dealing away Sanchez, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, but they did so for payroll reasons and did restock their rotation with Turner and Henderson Alvarez as part of the slew of prospects they received. Eovaldi is also projected to earn a rotation spot this year.

The Colorado Rockies have no choice but to develop their own starters or acquire arms via trades since the high altitude at Coors Field leads to ballooning ERAs, making Denver an unpopular destination for free agent pitchers.

Their current rotation features two right-handed arms returning from injuries – Jorge De La Rosa, who was obtained in a 2008 trade with Kansas City, and Jhoulys Chacin, who was signed as a teenager out of Venezuela and climbed the Rockies farm system.

Young arms like Drew Pomeranz and Tyler Chatwood were acquired in trades while fellow rotation candidates Christian Friedrich and Juan Nicasio are products of Colorado’s minor league system. Veteran righty Jeff Francis was drafted by the Rockies, had stints with Kansas City and Cincinnati, and returned last offseason when he did not get significant interest from other clubs.

Since the Rocky Mountain air does not translate into an inviting atmosphere for pitchers, the Rockies are emphasizing a commitment to developing their own arms so they can keep them under cost-effective team control for several seasons, eliminating the need to shop the free agent market for rotation help. At least that is their intention. Chacin and De La Rosa have been sidelined with injuries while Pomeranz, Chatwood, Friedrich and Nicasio have fallen victim to the 5-plus ERA syndrome that has afflicted Rockies starters since the club’s inception.

Perhaps the most prominent example of how a big market team has adopted a small market club’s strategy of crafting a rotation from within is the Boston Red Sox. They saw less-than-desirable results after signing Josh Beckett to a contract extension and inking Lackey to a five-year deal before the 2011 season. Now, their rotation is centered around Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront – all three of whom are under 30 and were developed in the club’s farm system.

Boston hopes that Lackey successfully rebounds from Tommy John surgery since they are stuck with his contract through at least 2014, and they did sign veteran right-hander Ryan Dempster to a one-year deal. Yet they refrained from using their considerable payroll flexibility this offseason to sign Greinke or Sanchez. Instead, they are waiting for De La Rosa, Webster, Barnes and Henry Owens to become Major league ready.

A few years ago, building a rotation like the Dodgers and Blue Jays have this offseason was the norm. Now, with the rising cost of free agent pitching coupled with the growing demand to have exciting young talent under long-term team control, the Dodgers and the Blue Jays are an exception to the current trend.

Jeff Louderback is a professional freelance writer and the founder and editor of BoSox Banter a site about the Red Sox, the Red Sox farm system and baseball-themed travel