We’re heading into that portion of the season where speculation ramps up beyond reasonable expectation and, for a few weeks anyway, the Red Sox get linked with just about any promising name imaginable.
In a year where the club is right on the fringe of playoff contention, that speculation will only be more acute.
The question needs to be asked, though, what if this club doesn’t need a move at all? At least not in the traditional sense.
Frankly speaking, there is no move that can be made this season without putting a very promising future at substantial risk.
Maybe the Sox can land a back-of-the-rotation arm, or some extra bullpen help. Maybe not.
But what if there is a worthy experiment to be had out there? One with potentially high dividends, and low relative risk. And by low relative risk, I mean it’s not going to mortgage the future – though it may not help things out for this season.
If the past three years have taught us anything, it’s that the big-name move isn’t the answer. See Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, or the failed loan-a-player approach of Jon Lester to the A’s — which effectively eventually brought us Rick Porcello by way of Yoenis Cespedes (and Alex Wilson … but I digress). The one thing I can’t seem to get past is the premium they paid for a hard-hit David Price when a lesser price would have kept a more productive (and cost effective) Jon Lester in town.
What if the answer for this season is something so radical, the very mention of it is going to draw a collective scoff from Red Sox Nation, and the rest of the baseball world?
In 1993, Tony LaRussa, then managing the Oakland Athletics, scrapped the traditional five-man pitching rotation in favor of what was best described as a nine-man platoon system. Or a nine-man rotation divided into three-man platoons. Each pitcher was responsible for 40-60 pitches every three days.
It was an idea based on the statistically proven fact that pitchers are generally at their best the first time through the lineup, and then suffer diminishing returns their second, third, and God-forbid, fourth times through. By breaking the pitchers into pods and roughly exposing them once through the order each, the strategy was designed to take advantage of that first-time-through roughly two to three times per game.
In essence, it would completely redefine the modern pitching staff as we know it.
In his article for Bill James Online in 2009, Dave Fleming labeled it the 3-3-3 system (three guys throw three innings every three days), stating: “Instead of asking starting pitchers to pitch to 25-33 hitters every fifth or sixth day, have them throw to 8-14 hitters every third day.”
Think about that for a moment.
Effectively, that would slot your three-man starting rotation as Steven Wright, David Price and Rick Porcello.
Matt Barnes and his flame-throwing arm (as evidenced during Friday’s work against the Angels), could represent an effective compliment to Wright’s offspeed brilliance in the second slot; Clay Buchholz could be a possible secondary to Price and maybe Joe Kelly could return to fill the second behind Porcello.
That leaves Robbie Ross Jr., Junichi Tazawa, Tommy Layne, Heath Hembree and Koji Uehara to mix and match the final three innings of games and plug gaps in the first six innings with Craig Kimbrel being used in leverage ninth-inning situations.
Starters would be throwing less pitches on fatigued arms. They’d, in theory, be able to throw harder during their limited exposure.
There’s a huge flaw in this strategy, and it comes down to contract bonuses. If your starters are only throwing three innings, they aren’t in line for wins. Ever. That makes for unhappy starters.
This was part of the failure in LaRussa’s initial experiment, which lasted about one week.
It also doesn’t allow an effective plan for extra innings games, particularly ones that last well into the teens. Who do you throw the following day? You always have to have at least three guys ready for the day after. Though, in light of Sox games this year, that still happens now.
And what if your starter throws great, and your secondary blows it? The blowback, especially in a criticism-rich market like Boston, would be substantial.
“Could’ve been a win, if not for this infernal strategy.”
Admittedly, there will be games, stretches even, that would make the club look completely ridiculous.
But that would be a short-term byproduct of a plan intended to succeed over the long term.
Boston does not have a viable five-man rotation moving forward. That’s a fact.
The arms that could make it a viable five-man rotation are going to come at a premium this year, given the list of potential buyers and the very short list of worthy sellers.
Maybe you land an arm that helps get you to the postseason. And maybe you watch a promising prospect like Anthony Rizzo, or Hanley Ramirez, play out his prime somewhere else.
Or maybe you go with something completely unorthodox, play the percentages, and see what happens – recognizing that playing any percentage is a flip of a weighted coin — it still lands on tails from time to time.
As stated last week, this is not a playoff team right now. It’s tough to imagine a pitcher like Sonny Gray making it a postseason team.
It’s tough to imagine a deal for any pitcher that could make it a postseason team not costing the young core dearly over the prime of its collective career.
My biggest anxiety this year is that an overreaching move (or moves) made this season will spoil what should be the best club in baseball for two or three seasons after this.
Why not try something different this year? Can it really get worse than Buchholz and Sean O’Sullivan rounding out your starting five?
It’s not my call, though, and not a call Boston is likely to make.
But someone will try this at some point. Kansas City is already actively shortening the traditional start length.
One has to wonder: What if?
My guess, in the current statistically driven marketplace of the MLB, is we’ll see the three-man rotation from someone sooner rather than later.
Might as well start in Boston.