CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It's the only position battle left in camp, so Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick will be the focus for the final 10 days here in Florida. And rightfully so.
But there is a lesson to take out of the competition for the fifth starter's job: It doesn't really matter that much.
The guys over at Fangraphs have been discussing the merits of how teams should handle the fifth starter slot and they have sparked some interesting discussion. Some of it is valid; some is not.
The point is this: Teams need to be flexible when constructing the back of their rotation. The Phillies have definitely embraced that idea this spring. If you look at simple numbers from 2009, it's easy to see why. Last season, only the Cubs and Rockies had five starters each make at least 24 starts. Moreover:
# All 30 teams had at least one pitcher make 24 or more starts.
# Twenty-six teams had two pitchers make 24 or more starts.
# Then the number drops to 22 teams that had three pitchers make 24 or more starts.
# Then we hit a cliff. Only nine teams were able to rely on four pitchers to make 24 or more starts.
The Phillies weren't even among those nine teams -- only Joe Blanton (31), Cole Hamels (32) and Moyer (25) made more than 24 starts. J.A. Happ was close with 23 and Cliff Lee started 12. Now obviously, the Phillies have a bit more stability at the top entering 2010 with Roy Halladay on the opening day roster.
Still, that doesn't mean the conservative approach with the fifth starter's job isn't necessary.
Yes, the Phillies are being conservative. Moyer, 47, will likely begin the season as the fifth starter. He is owed $8 million. He pitched poorly enough to be removed from the rotation midseason in 2009. And he had three surgeries this off-season. But he's also won 258 games in his 23-year career and has gotten guys out this spring.
Sure, with the way Kendrick has pitched in Grapefruit League games, he could easily be declared the winner. The Phillies could attempt to move Moyer in a trade to a team looking for a veteran fifth stater (there are plenty of possible suitors). But it's March and there is no reason not to see what Moyer can do as a starter to begin the season.
Or to sacrifice the flexibility the Phillies currently have.
That's the main point of a follow-up article on Fangraphs, which advocates a job-sharing plan for the fifth starter's spot. They advocate finding three pitchers to fill the fifth starter's role:
1. A long reliever who would serve as the seventh arm in the ‘pen and be expected to make eight to 10 starts on the year. Ideally, this would be a proven veteran who could stick at the MLB level all season.
2. A pitching prospect that projects to be a fringe No. 3 or 4 with two or three minor league options remaining. He would be introduced to the Majors in this low-pressure role over the next two to three seasons before officially (hopefully) graduating to the role of a reliable third or fourth starter. In this role, the pitcher would need to make about 10 starts at the MLB level each season.
3. A minor league “veteran” pitcher (somewhere in the 25-30 year old range) who has been unable to stick in the Majors – and still has at least one minor league option left – and can be relied on to make at least five starts on the season.
Hmm...sounds pretty familiar. It's not spot-on, but Moyer, Kendrick and Andrew Carpenter/Ryan Vogelsong could fit nicely into those described roles. Now the Phillies didn't necessarily say this off-season, "Let's share the job." But by rightfully keeping Moyer around, the Phillies give themselves options.
If Moyer isn't the guy, then Kendrick will eventually take over sometime during the season. There have been far worse scenarios.