Depending on how you view this Exhausted Rotation Dilemma, you can rank the Atlanta Braves, New York Mets and Washington Nationals in any order with just cause — though the Mets’ rotation, in quality, quantity and near-prime age, seems best suited.
However, you will need mirrors — and prayers — to figure out how to justify a playoff spot for the Philadelphia Phillies, who have a two-man “rotation” and then question marks. Same for the Miami Marlins, who have five flame-throwing young arms, only one of whom has ever topped — gulp — 115 innings.
At spring camps, the question of questions is how young pitchers who have never worked 180 innings can reach levels they haven’t attempted without hurting themselves — especially when they had so few innings last year. And which teams will even let them try?
That’s the dilemma for Atlanta, despite three straight division titles and every core player returning. The Braves have only one pitcher (Charlie Morton) who has ever worked 180 innings, and he did it only once.
PECOTA, the Baseball Prospectus prediction model, shocked its followers — who include many general managers — when it spit out: “Atlanta 82.5 wins, fourth place in NL East!”
Everybody covets left-hander Max Fried, 27; Mike Soroka, 23, who is returning from a torn Achilles’; and Ian Anderson, 22, who pitched only 51 (splendid) innings last year, including the playoffs, and topped out at 135⅔ in the minors. They’re a 2022 dream.
But what about 2021? Soroka, the sharp-control, groundball machine of 2019 who could be a long-term staff ace, is a particular quandary. In 2018 (when he had a shoulder injury) and 2020 combined, he threw only 39⅓ major league innings. Also, with no designated hitter in the NL this year, Soroka must hit and run the bases. Does that push him and his heel back to May?
Morton, a 37-year-old free agent acquisition, may need to pick up lots of innings slack. Insurance policy Drew Smyly, a 31-year-old free agent who missed all of 2017 and 2018, pitched just 26⅓ innings last year. Fingers will be crossed.
How will injured stars who pitched little or not at all last season — such as the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg, the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard and Soroka — recover from injuries in the face of a six-month grind? How do you manage their innings?
If the young and the recovering are worrisome, then so are the old — especially in Washington.
How will the glamorous, veteran Nats staff — with a top four who have combined for 27 seasons with 180 innings and 19 with 200 innings — cope with all that tread wear, especially after such light lifting last summer? How will Max Scherzer, who is showing age-appropriate regression, and Jon Lester, who had to leave camp this week to undergo thyroid surgery, hold up at 36 and 37, respectively?
How do quality veteran pitchers — such as the Nats’ quartet of Scherzer, Strasburg, Lester and Patrick Corbin — perform in the first season back on the mound after a year when they pitched fewer than 100 innings? When I have a free decade, maybe I will work on it.
My merely anecdotal experience is that mature pitchers, even after injury, usually go back to previous innings totals as soon as their arms are sound again.
Young pitchers need to build strength. Too-old pitchers wear out. But those in their primes — or the greats — just bounce back. I can’t prove it. But the Nats certainly will be a case study.
For example, the most statistically similar pitcher to Scherzer at the same age is David Cone. At age 33, Cone had an injured, 72-inning season. The next year, he had 195 innings. The parallel cases, age for age, for Strasburg and Lester are David Price and Tim Hudson. Price had a 74⅔-inning year at age 31 but worked 202 innings the next year, including the postseason, and finished the World Series. After 42⅓ innings at age 33, Hudson bounced back to 228⅔ innings the next season.
Lester, at 37, is the biggest question mark. But as a group, the Nats’ rotation still looks like one of the most underrated elements of any team. Seriously, 40-1 odds to win the World Series, just one season removed from doing it?
In the search for the 650 to 700 innings a contender usually needs from its top four starters — out of a season team total of more than 1,400 — the Phillies will struggle on days when neither Aaron Nola nor Zack Wheeler pitches. And their bullpen, even with free agent Archie Bradley added as the probable closer, is still poor. Even with super-bopper prospect Alec Bohm, 24, at third base, the Phillies probably can’t hit their way out of this pitching mess.
When the Marlins send Sixto Sánchez, Pablo López, Elieser Hernandez, Sandy Alcantara or Trevor Rogers to the mound, you will see big talent. The hidden plus for Miami is that they may be deep enough to hold their young guns to 25 to 28 starts and be surprisingly tough.
The pitchers who will cope the best will, by and large, be those who have coped with tons of innings in the past. They know their bodies and how to navigate a long season. These veterans may even feel refreshed by having a mere 10- to 12-start season.
(Come on, it’s spring training. If we can’t build theories now, then see if they come true, when can we? If they blow up on us, how does that differ from other springs?)
Which brings us to the long-suffering Mets and their fans. A new rich owner helps. Trading for shortstop Francisco Lindor will bring joy to Queens. Signing catcher James McCann adds stability. But it’s the addition of Carlos Carrasco in the blockbuster Lindor deal that makes the Mets so formidable. He is just the right kind of horse to join Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman and Syndergaard.
Now the Mets’ top four starters have all had multiple 180-inning seasons, with 12 in all. And three of the four have had a 200-inning season. Their average age on April 1 (almost 31) is a tad high but not much. These guys need Taijuan Walker in the rotation, too? The division can say thanks that the bullpen still looks pretty “Mets.”
One word has been left out — “October.” Which NL East teams, even if they make the playoffs, could still find enough pitchers who can lift their arms and go deep in the playoffs? The Mets, for sure. The Nats, maybe.
The NL East is now as filled with everyday stars as any division, with Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna in Atlanta; Lindor and Pete Alonso in New York; Juan Soto and Trea Turner in Washington; and Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto in Philadelphia. They all have helpmates, too.
But hitters barely know the difference between 60 games and 162. They just show up. On the other hand, starting pitchers are about to face an unusual and, for most, scary challenge. These are grown men who spend their lives worrying about not sleeping on their pitching elbows.
The fascinating division will start and probably end with the care, feeding and good fortune of those top four men in each rotation. Which arms will stay attached?