The best fifth starter in baseball is the Boston Red Sox’ three-headed monster (Clay Buchholz, Brad Penny and John Smoltz)
If we were to take teams’ proclamations of their rotation pecking orders at face value, the question of which team has the best fifth starter would be an easy one to answer. The San Francisco Giants like to pretend that Barry Zito is their third or fourth starter rather than admit that they are paying him $18.5 million to be their fifth starter this year. If we were to play along with the Giants’ attempt to save face, we would recognize Jonathan Sanchez, who struck out nearly a batter an inning last year and had a FIP more than a full run lower than his ERA, as their “fifth starter.” I will admit a bias towards left-handed pitchers in their mid-twenties with sparkling strikeout rates and occasional control issues, but I think that even someone who didn’t share my affinity for pitchers like Sanchez or Oliver Perez would agree that Sanchez would be a pretty awesome pitcher to have as a fifth starter. The problem, both for the purposes of this exercise and for the Giants, is that Sanchez is really not San Francisco’s fifth starter – he’s their fourth when Randy Johnson is healthy and their third when the Big Unit’s back flares up. Limiting the analysis to teams willing to acknowledge reality, the possibility emerges that the best fifth starter in baseball might not be one pitcher, but a collection of high-upside guys who come with some risk attached to their right arms.
The Boston Red Sox have three pitchers who could share time in the fifth starter slot, and each one has the capability to significantly outperform the typical fifth starter. Clay Buchholz was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball going into the 2008 season, but the 24-year-old had a rough time in the majors, posting a 6.75 ERA in 76 innings with high walk and home-run rates. However, it’s worth noting that Buchholz struck out 72 batters in those 76 innings and was to a large extent the victim of a freakishly high .366 BABIP. While he needs to display the sort of control he had in the minors, Buchholz has the tools to succeed and is a good bet to show significant improvement.
If Buchholz falters, the Red Sox have signed a pair of veterans to incentive-laden one-year deals. Brad Penny is coming off a season marred by shoulder problems, but when healthy he is more than acceptable at the back of the rotation (even when taking into account that he is moving to the American League and a more hitter-friendly park). John Smoltz is not expected to be ready to pitch until June (a year after he underwent major shoulder surgery), and Smoltz is the sort of pitcher who is never bad, just great or not healthy enough to pitch. Even in his attempts to pitch with a damaged labrum last year, the 41-year-old was excellent until he could no longer pitch through the pain: 36 strikeouts and just eight walks in 28 innings, Game Scores above 60 in four of his five starts.
There is no guarantee that Buchholz will put it all together this year, or that Penny will bounce back to his previous form or that Smoltz has anything left in his Hall Of Fame right arm. If a team had just one of these pitchers as their fifth starter, the risk of giving a rotation slot to a young pitcher coming off a rough rookie season or a veteran with shoulder woes in his recent past would probably be too high even for the considerable upside each pitcher provides. However, the Red Sox do not need to hit on the best-case scenario of all three of these pitchers. They don’t even need any one of them to provide 30 starts. As long as one of the three is healthy and effective at any given time, the composite result should be among the best of what any team gets from its fifth starters.
CONSISTENCY COUNTS: CUBS’ MARSHALL IS THE BEST BET
CHRIS PUMMER: The best bet to be baseball’s best fifth starter this year is the Cubs’ Sean Marshall.
Before I go any further, let me lay out my ground rules. Not the gospel, just my way of looking at it.
When I talk about a fifth starter, I mean the guy taking the fifth turn in the rotation. The guy who gets bumped because of off days and maybe has to move up a spot or two because of injuries and who probably won’t pitch in the postseason if everyone’s healthy. Yes, Barry Zito might be the fifth-best guy in the Giants rotation. But he won’t be getting his turn skipped if for no other reason than to justify his bloated contract. (Marshall will be better, anyway.)
I also wanted to pick the guy that would give his team the most value throughout the regular season. Teams often overlook how huge it can be to have a reliable pitcher manning that fifth spot. If one guy can give you consistently solid work –- not spectacular or even necessarily average work –- it’s a big lift. Teams give away so many games in winnable divisions by sorting through a cast of rehab projects, fringe prospects and AAAA starters. Sometimes your rotation is so weak that you need to take that kind of gamble to get into the pennant race, but it’s a risky proposition. That those guys are so unlikely to come up big is why teams are only taking low-risk fliers on them.
So here’s why I like Marshall:
The guy is a legit pitching prospect. He’s only 26 years old this season. His minor-league track record includes an ERA of 2.69, a WHIP of 1.13 and nearly a strikeout per inning pitched (323 K in 337 1/3 inn.).
Moreover, Marshall’s shown over parts of the last three seasons that he can translate that track record to the big leagues. After a rough start in 2006 when he posted a 5.56 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP in 24 starts, he’s improved in both of those stats each of the last two years. Working mostly as a starter in 2007 the numbers were 3.92 and 1.34, and last year splitting his innings as a starter and reliever they were 3.86 and 1.27.
Marshall’s also improved his K-rate and issued fewer free passes per nine innings since his debut.
The conventional stats as well as the peripherals say the Cubs should have a left-handed pitcher who is better than league average behind Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden, Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly. There’s reason to think he could be better than that.
Considering how fragile Harden and Dempster have been over the course of their careers, Marshall is a good bet to approach 180-200 innings this season. He should be ready for that workload with the bonus of having been overworked as a younger player.
Marshall may lack the upside of some other guys I’ll mention, but I think he’s far and away the best bet to give his team the most cumulative value, and the most consistent performance from the start of the season until the end.
Other guys I considered:
Tampa Bay’s David Price –- I like him a lot, but it might be a lot to ask a pitcher with only 109 1/3 professional innings under his belt to improve on the 1.72 WHIP he posted in AAA last year against American League East teams.
Arizona’s Max Scherzer – Another guy who could be great, but I backed off because of injury and workload worries.
Boston’s John Smoltz, Brad Penny and Clay Buchholtz –- This is cheating because nobody knows who will win this job, or who will have it at the end of the year. You have to like the upside each guy has, but what if the first two options flame out? The Red Sox will have spent half the season figuring out which guy is healthy enough and ready to contribute. By that point they’d need a spectacular performance to salvage value out of the fifth spot. Any of these guys could be Cy Young-caliber. But is THAT outcome much more likely than a Kip Wells-like season from each of them?
Sure, you can like the fact that the Sox paid top dollar for a big potential payoff. But the money didn’t buy them any certainty.