How do you go from being the 5th most important pitcher on a MLB staff (yes, I believe the 5th starter is more important than the closer or any other bullpen guy, a statsitical fact that can be easily seen by WAR contributions by even the best closers), to being the least important, aka the last guy out of the pen, the swingman or long man, the mop-up guy?
Well, that’s what’s happening to Ross Detwiler so far this year.
Now, its sort of hard to feel a ton of compassion for a guy who is making $3M this year guaranteed, whether he pitches 50 times or five. So this article isn’t so much about Detwiler or his salary, but about things like “opportunity costs” and the relative value of players in particular roles, and how teams can turn replaceable assets into needed depth.
Coming into this season, I figured (along with many) that Detwiler’s pre-injury 2013 performance, coupled with his break-out 2012 season would earn him the 5th rotation spot. As it turned out, not only did the team not want to give him that spot … but they have repeatedly passed over Detwiler to make starts when the opportunity has arisen. When Doug Fister went down with injury, Detwiler wasn’t pulled back into the rotation; the starts were given to Taylor Jordan. When Jordan proved unreliable and was sent down, the team called up Blake Treinen and gave him a spot start on 5/6/14 instead of throwing Detwiler.
Which makes you wonder; what’s the point of keeping a high-priced/high-talent “swing man” if you never let him do his role?? Detwiler’s usage so far in 2014 has been more like a middle reliever than a long-man; in 9 appearances (before last night) he’s logged 14 2/3 innings. Now, on the one hand this is a relatively good sign; if you’re never using your swing-man for 4 inning stints it means your starters are pitching well. But on the other hand … the team is clearly wasting Detwiler’s talents. Of the 66 batters he had faced prior to 5/6/14’s debacle, only SIX of them were classified as “high leverage” situations by baseball-reference.com. He’s being used as a mop-up guy.
You don’t use power lefty capable starters as mop-up guys. Its a waste of their skills and talent, and ends up leading to human-nature meltdowns like we saw out of Detwiler on 5/6/14.
Here’s a quick history of the Nats longmen in recent years: Ross Ohlendorf, Zach Duke, Tanner Roark (to some extent in late 2013), Tom Gorzelanny, Miguel Batista, Saul Rivera (to some extent), Stephen Shell, Micah Bowie and Levale Speigner (though honestly, dipping back into the 2007-2008 timeframe is tough because our starters were so bad, it was difficult to find who the designated “long-man” really was because eventually they were starting too). There’s common features to most all of these guys: they’re generally either veterans signed to MLFA deals or on one year deals for limited money, or they’re rookies who earned their way up and provided some value. The point is this; you don’t pay your long-man good money, and you certainly don’t waste a good former starter in the long-man position.
The missed opportunity cost for the Nats is this: they can turn Detwiler into something of value in trade for some other team out there, right now. Go look at our favorite trade partner Oakland’s #4 and #5 starters stats (Straily and Milone); we could move Detwiler to Oakland and get something of use back in a heartbeat and it’d make both teams better. The Yankees would kill for a reliable 5th starter right now, with Pineda hurt or suspended, Nova lost to Tommy John and Nuno ineffective. The Mariners are now 9-deep into their starter depth chart and are treading water. I’ll bet you couldn’t even name Pittsburgh’s 5th starter right now. Cincinnati’s two starters down right now and that’s before Johnny Cueto gets his inevitable D/L trip (he made 3 such trips last year). So there’s definitely teams out there who expect to contend with starter depth issues.
Meanwhile, the Nats have 4 or 5 guys in AAA right now who could fill the role that Detwiler is playing right now, for less money and just as well, and we’d be a better team with Detwiler’s return in trade for it. Every additional injury further thins this team and highlights more need for backup hitters (right now as we speak, we don’t have a SINGLE middle infielder on the 40-man who could get called-up to cover … and our only two out-field 40-man options Eury Perez and Michael Taylor are basically a pinch runner and a guy who’se got a month above A-ball. (Admittedly, this situation has somewhat cleared up recently with Hairston‘s return and considering that we also have Souza and Moore back in the minors … but we still need some depth).
Move Detwiler, get some closer-to-the-majors bats, and install Treinen as that last-guy in the bullpen. Or call back Aaron Barrett or Ryan Mattheus and just leave t hem in the bullpen instead of making them rack up frequent flier miles. If you want another lefty, re-call Aaron Laffey and/or Xavier Cedeno and leave them on the club for a while. You don’t need your best prospect pitching mop-up/low-leverage innings in 8-0 games.