Indifference Point

I was listening to “Radiolab” on the radio today and they discussed the concept of the “indifference point”. The indifference point as I understood it is the tempo most musicians and/or listeners prefer in a piece of music. Take Beethoven’s Third Symphony, “Eroica”, for instance. There’s some controversy over how fast Beethoven wanted the music to be played. What has been learned is that when something is perceived to be too slow the players wish to speed it up; or if it’s thought to be too fast they endeavor to slow it down. Eventually, most musicians guess at a point (tempo) that feels right. Clearly disparate groups can arrive at varying “indifference points” if you’ve listened to many recordings of the Third Symphony. Some are brisk and move along at a breakneck pace, while others are stately and almost ponderous. I submit the best interpretations lie between those two extremes, like von Karajan’s version with the Berlin in 1963. It’s majestic

and

propulsive.

The indifference point as it relates to the St. Louis Cardinals roster heading into the 2014 season pertains to my state of mind about who of a few candidates must go to make the club a functioning, cohesive and balanced group when the games start to count in April. They have too many starting pitchers, and someone must go. I don’t want any of them to go, but considering the 25-man roster and the way the club is constituted there simply isn’t room for all of them. The forthcoming is premised upon taking present rules for granted, assuming the health of all involved, (more on that later), and, the fact that I am not privy to all the options Cardinals management has regarding younger pitchers like Joe Kelly, Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, and even Lance Lynn. (By options I mean can they be sent down to the minors, for how long, and how many times this could be done in each case).

Right now the Cardinals have seven starting pitchers for a five-man rotation. I will put them into subgroups thusly:
Locks: Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha.
Tentatively In: Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly.
Comeback Candidate: Jaime Garcia.
Outside Looking In: Carlos Martinez. Let’s pick those apart in reverse order.

The Cardinals, in their exit interview with Martinez told him to prepare to start when the season arrives. Martinez is a high-ceiling talent who started throughout his rise from the minors. Deriving maximum value from a good pitcher means giving him more, rather than fewer, innings. Martinez would have more value providing 180 innings of work than, say, 60 innings. You want your best pitchers to throw the most innings. Martinez, who hit 101 mph on his fastball out of the bullpen and flashed an outstanding slider, has as much upside as anyone on the staff. He is also 22 and under team control contractually for years. He would be very effective–but possibly wasted–in a bullpen role.

Joe Sheehan has done research on taking young starters, moving them to the bullpen, and then converting them back into starters. The results are not particularly salubrious. He found only two recent examples of players who succeeded on such a path: Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox and Adam Wainwright of St. Louis. Most pitchers were ineffective as starters, got hurt, or were even ineffective as relievers. Examples recently are Wade Davis, Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando, and Joba Chamberlain. Sheehan’s conclusion is that clubs have one free shot: if you want to leverage a high-end starter as a reliever that’s fine, but to go from starter to reliever and back to starter is too risky, a bridge too far.

His point was that starting pitchers cannot be developed in the bullpen in today’s game, since relievers are mostly turned into one-inning pitchers. He believes the evidence says that unless and until MLB rediscovers the long-relief role– where young guys used to break in by pitching multiple innings per appearance, building arm strength– pitchers would be protected by defining expected workloads early on.

This is now where they are with Carlos Martinez. It’s believed that he is capable of ramping up his workload safely after performing one-to-two- inning stints for less than half a season. But the evidence suggests that to jerk him back again (to the bullpen) in order that he can be of some utility to the team might be inadvisable.

This is why Trevor Rosenthal of the Cardinals and Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds are probably “doomed” to close games for their respective teams. They’re too good at what they do to change their roles, and it would be too risky to ask them to work a lot more since they have become so acclimated to their present regimen for so long. It’s too late for them.

Rosenthal would be crestfallen to learn this. He wants to start. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak essentially told him in November Sorry, we like you right where you are. You’re our closer. I think that’s the right decision for the Cardinals going forward.

Chapman likes closing. He prefers it. He apparently doesn’t want a heavy workload and likes to throw the ball as hard as he can. Max effort can’t take you through seven innings, and when you can touch 104 miles an hour with strikes and pair it with a devastating left-handed slider it literally is game over when he arrives on a scene. His new manager Bryan Price, the former pitching coach, was an early advocate for max value from Chapman, as a starter. The organization has concluded that it would be best for both parties for Chapman to finish games, or be available regularly for high-leverage situations, as the need arises.

This is a long way of making the point that I think Carlos Martinez is too valuable as a starting pitcher not to have him do it. This is why I think he will start, and it will be at AAA Memphis when the season begins. He will be insurance for:

The Comeback Candidate, Jaime Garcia: Garcia, the only left-hander among the seven, is coming off moderately invasive shoulder surgery. He missed most of 2013. Already having had Tommy John surgery in 2008 to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, he will have a daunting task coming back from the shoulder procedure and the concomitant rehabilitation. Shoulders are much more dicey for pitchers as the joint is more unstable than an elbow; there’s much more range of motion involved. The history of pitchers coming back from shoulder surgery is not nearly as good as that of those who have had elbows repaired. Although they have a chunk of guaranteed cash invested in Garcia, at present the Cardinals cannot count on him being available in 2014.

It would be good to have Garcia back. He has value as a quality left-hander and the Cardinals are paying him like a starter. He has little trade value now since he has not proved himself durable and effective. Ideally, he would be a rotation fixture.

Which leads to those Tentatively In: Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly. Both are young, cost-controlled power pitchers, although Lynn is soon due for a bump in pay from arbitration. He’ll have a case from the traditional standpoint, as he has won 31 games in the past two seasons.

Since they are both young, have proved they can effectively eat innings and are cheap they would be valuable trade commodities. Both are exemplars of why the Cardinals system is envied: they are home-grown talents, years from free agency. This is how good teams are sustained in baseball today.

I am indifferent as to which one must go. If I had my druthers it would be Kelly, because although he throws very hard he misses surprisingly few bats for that velocity. I don’t think he has great secondary pitches or the upside of Lynn. Lynn, however, could bring back more in a package, as he’s had success at this level longer than Kelly and is still inexpensive.

Wainwright is the ace. Wacha and Miller are number one draft picks that the organization sees as rotation cornerstones for years to come. The Cardinals appear to be invested in their futures. Realistically, only one of Lynn or Kelly would have to go because of the status of Garcia, and the uncertainty surrounding the progress of Martinez. Having said that, I can see the Cardinals attempting to “pull a Kelly” with one of these guys when injuries or regression hit. (Kelly was stashed in the bullpen at the start of last season, where he languished due to disuse and inconsistency until Garcia was shut down and he took his place in the rotation–after a brief, failed flirtation with left-hander Tyler Lyons). It may be that they try to muddle through with one in the bullpen and one at Memphis, or on the disabled list.

The fact is that all seven have legitimate claims to be in a major league rotation, and they should be. The club, however, has a few more needs going into next season, like a utility infielder who bats right-handed and can get on base at a decent rate.

Hmm…I’ve written an equivocating, indifferent piece. Perhaps that’s as it should be. I hope it has conveyed a work-in-progress feel a general manager must inhabit as he crafts a roster while the air is cold, the stadium is dark, and spring training is still more than a hundred days away. Maybe John Mozeliak is at the indifference point, observing a tonic interlude between the release of tension provided by the trade of David Freese/ signing of Jhonny Peralta, and the buildup of tension engendered by the apprehension of unfinished business.

When I conceived this article I saw 26 names for 25 spots. I thought I could justify a two-for-one dump of a pitcher and a reserve outfielder for a Martin Prado type. (Not likely to begin with, as he wants to play every day and makes $10 million. I don’t know of any $10 million bench players. Vernon Wells?) That’s not necessary! I don’t believe “these things have a way of working themselves out”. Every team has imbalances every year…they should be minimized, shortened in duration of time; not allowed to reverberate throughout the organization.

Now that I’ve thought through the process, and noted the questions around two of the proposed starters, I’m more convinced they might take the latter path, trying to hang on to all seven, at least until some answers are provided by Memorial Day. Thanks for your patience. I’ll touch on other imbalances on the roster in a future post.

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