The back end of a team’s rotation is usually a hodgepodge of ugly, erratic and mostly incompetent arms. They’re littered with has-beens and never-weres; a gluttony of guys who make fans cover their eyes and cross their fingers, hoping beyond hope that they can make it through five innings — six if they’re particularly lucky — without putting their team in an inescapable hole.
Back end pitchers also play enough of a role to matter during the course of a 162-game season. Last year, the White Sox played 67 games that were started by someone other than their presumed Top 3 pitchers going into the season (Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Jeff Samardzija). Or more specifically, they accounted for 26 percent of the total innings completely by White Sox pitchers in 2015.
Granted, not every back end starter is cut from the same cloth. Using the White Sox as the most obvious example, Carlos Rodon being your fourth or fifth starter in 2015 is much, much different from John Danks. Looking across the division at Detroit, Daniel Norris at the back end of the rotation is much different than Mike Pelfrey. Likewise, the guys who aren’t necessarily expected to be counted on as more than a back end starter who eats innings at the beginning of the year can sometimes ascend (Esteban Loaiza always comes to mind, for some reason), and guys who start the year as a potential key cog in a rotation can fall off drastically (Hello again, Mr. Samardzija).
Keeping all these caveats in mind, let’s try to get an idea of where the back end of the White Sox rotation stacks up compared to those of their AL Central rivals. Most teams have their rotations basically set at this point in Spring Training, but understanding how incredibly rare it is for a team to use as few as five starters during the season, we’ll look at the projected Nos. 4 and 5 starters for each team, as well as guys who won’t necessarily start the season with the big league club, but have a good chance to start at some point during the season because of injury or performance.
Probably most of the work: John Danks, Mat Latos
Of the pitchers we’re going to go over, there’s only one pitcher PECOTA actually likes more than Latos, who is projected to be worth 1 WARP and have an ERA in the low 4.00s. The question with Latos, of course, is health, and that’s where the other guys come in.
We pretty much know at this point what to expect out of Danks at this point. Unless Dioner Navarro’s pitch-tipping discovery was truly a revelation, Danks will continue to be a guy who eats innings and occasionally gets hammered. But if Latos can’t stay healthy, the White Sox will depend on a mixture of guys who have struggled to find success during their respective brief major league careers.
Carroll, Johnson, and Beck and Turner to a lesser extent, are all guys who shouldn’t kill you with a spot start or two here and there, but Latos’ ability to stay healthy and be effective enough to remain in the rotation is rather important.
The wild card here is Fulmer, who some believe could join the rotation as early as May or June. In the very good chance that someone ahead of him falters, his ascent could give the White Sox a big boost.
At 31, one has to wonder if Tomlin’s impressive work in 65 innings in 2015 is truly a sign that he’s fully recovered from Tommy John surgery in 2012 and even better than he was prior to that, but PECOTA seems to think so, as he’s projected to be worth more WARP than any other pitcher currently pegged for the Nos. 4 and 5 spots in their respective rotations.
Between Bauer — a former top prospect who has shown flashes of brilliance but continues to be erratic and inconsistent, and Tomlin if he’s as good as he could be, the Indians likely have the best back end options of any team in the AL Central. Where things get dicey is what comes if either guy falters or suffers injury. House and Anderson, like the White Sox group of mediocrity, are fine in a pinch, but depth is lacking here. After those two, there isn’t a whole lot to fall back on, and unlike the rest of the teams in the division, there’s no youngster close to major league-ready who could break through.
Luckily for the Indians, they arguable have the best pitching staff in the division. It’s just the depth that is lacking.
Probably most of the work: Daniel Norris, Mike Pelfrey
Detroit’s pitching depth will be tested right off the bat this season, as promising youngster Norris will begin the season on the disabled list. Greene seems most likely to get the fifth slot in the rotation in his absence, and after impressing despite being thrust into duty with the 2014 Yankees, he fell back down to earth last season after a trade brought him to Detroit.
Most of Detroit’s depth is relatively untested at the major league level, as Ryan has gained a spot start or two during 66 career innings across two seasons, and Boyd, while still only 25, was really, really bad in spot start duties with both Detroit and Toronto a year ago.
The only non-youngster of the bunch is Pelfrey, who was surprisingly competent in Minnesota a year ago after a variety of injuries — including Tommy John surgery back in 2012 — limited him to 37 starts from 2012-14. If he holds up, he should be a constant in the back end of Detroit’s rotation, eating innings and pitching to contact. He is Detroit’s Danks.
Fulmer — the other Fulmer — is like the White Sox’s version, a wild card. After being acquired from the Mets in last season’s Yoenis Cespedes deal, he immediately became the best prospect in Detroit’s moribund system and could see the majors this year. Between Fulmer and Norris, Detroit has a pair of young arms to be excited about.
I believe Ethan Spalding put it best when it comes to the Twins and their pitching staff:
the Twins pitching dev is obviously a front for a top secret cloning op but why did they choose to clone Brad Radke instead of Johan Santana
— Ethan Spalding (@SpaldingBalls) March 29, 2016
It’s true that the Twins’ rotation is filled with mediocrity. The fact that the back end of the rotation isn’t much less impressive than the top guys isn’t a good sign for the team as a whole, but that they’re loaded with guys who eat innings, stay healthy and keep them in games is at least somewhat nice. Milone and Nolasco are basically interchangeable in that regard, but if Duffey slips into the fifth starter role at some point he may be a nice change.
While his profile doesn’t portend a lot of strikeouts, the 25-year-old did strike out 8.2 batters per nine innings, but he also walked his fair share. He’s likely a swingman long-term, but the Twins would be well served to give him and fellow 25-year-old Rogers a look if they fall out of the race early.
Those two, along with the aforementioned veteran inning eaters, are of course just holding the place of 21-year-old flamethrower Berrios, who in reality you should’t expect to see until September. The five guys listed before Berrios won’t be the problem with the 2016 Twins, it’ll likely be the lack of a dominant arm at the front of the rotation.
The defending champions have, on paper, the weakest backend of the rotation in the division. Medlen, who is kept together by pins and needles at this point, was a solid reliever for most of 2015 after finally recovering from his second Tommy John surgery, while Young rode some good BABIP luck to good results in 2015 before falling apart late. In fact, Young is the only player mentioned on this list who PECOTA projects to be worth a negative amount in 2016.
Royals Devil Magic could strike once again, but if Medlen’s body falters and Young can’t produce, what’s left?
The most likely candidate to get innings in that scenario is Duffy, who outpitched his peripherals in 2014 before falling back to earth a season ago. Duffy is a fine back end of the rotation option who the Royals would probably be better off using over Young at this point, but after that things get very dicey. Minor hasn’t pitched since 2014 and will begin the season on the 60-day DL, and I’m just as surprised as you are to see Wang still hanging around.
Zimmer, much like the law firm of Fulmer & Fulmer, could be a game-changer for Kansas City, however, and may be closer to making his major league debut than either of them. If he does, and one of the Medlen/Young/Duffy trio proves capable, the Royals will be fine.
OK, so what we just looked at proves something that may be rather obvious: that the back end of the rotation isn’t always very pretty. However, while the raw numbers of these guys aren’t pretty, it’s clear that having a number of pitchers who won’t murder your team’s chances of winning every time they step on the mound is as important as ever, especially with starters throwing fewer innings than ever before in major league history.
The White Sox rolling with Danks and Latos at the start of the season seems fine, especially when you compare them to their division rivals. Those two and the rest eating up innings while Sale, Quintana and Rodon do all the heavy lifting will be an important factor in the team’s success in 2016.
Top Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports