Injuries magnify importance of pitching depth
With third team in a month, Noesi becomes ninth White Sox starter in two weeks
CHICAGO -- If this is Wednesday, the White Sox starting pitcher must be Hector Noesi.
And if you're Hector Noesi, you must be at U.S. Cellular Field, although anyone would understand if you had asked your cab driver to take you to Globe Life Park or Safeco Field.
Pitching for his third Major League team in a month, and becoming the White Sox ninth starting pitcher in 14 days, the 27-year-old Noesi worked three crisp innings against the Tigers before reality set in. He was back in the dugout by the time the fourth inning ended, having allowed four runs on four ringing hits and a walk.
Noesi, claimed on waivers from the Rangers, who had essentially purchased him from the Mariners, hadn't started a game since winter ball, back home in the Dominican Republic, and was working on three days' rest after his debut in the White Sox bullpen.
"You're always rolling the dice with depth," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura, whose team lost, 5-1, to Max Scherzer and the Tigers. "Not a lot of guys want to be part of depth. It's good to have. Not everybody wants to be that guy, but it's good to have."
With an epidemic of injuries sweeping through professional baseball, teams are having to adjust their pitching plans with increasing frequency. At the start of play on Wednesday, the 30 Major League teams had put almost 100 pitchers on the disabled list since Spring Training, including more than 40 who were either starting when the season began or would project as big league starters if they were healthy.
Think about that for a minute. That's eight full rotations sidelined.
Baseball isn't always fair, and health is always a key. It's worth noting that some teams have kept their rotations essentially intact since the start of Spring Training (Orioles, Red Sox, Royals, Angels, Twins and Brewers) but seven others have already used seven or more starters, with the White Sox and Rangers (eight) having the biggest needs.
"I don't think [pitching depth] necessarily becomes more important in any of our minds as far as planning," said White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, whose team has ace Chris Sale and Felipe Paulino sidelined. "It's always been essential. But this year, you're certainly seeing that axiom tested more frequently across the league. ... The easiest way to derail a season is to not have enough pitching depth. When you see as many injuries going around the league, it just makes that paranoia more stark for clubs, I think."
Hahn and others with the White Sox insist that Sale's stint on the DL is precautionary, but fans are advised to hold their breath until he is back on the mound. This is baseball's season of the witch, with Clayton Kershaw sidelined, the Athletics having lost both Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin to Tommy John surgery and the Braves having sent five pitchers out for that procedure since last May.
No one fully understands why these injuries are happening. Anthony Romeo, a Chicago-based orthopedist who repaired Jake Peavy and John Danks, argues for more research funding, but some in the game still see the wave of injuries as more a matter of timing than a sign of an impending armageddon.
"My gut, and I have no proof behind it, is it is a fluky streak," Hahn said. "We may just as well see a year from now, two years from now, a stretch where there are zero pitching injuries. Hopefully we're that fortunate."
Maybe so. But around baseball there are a lot of people in their 40s and 50s who believe this generation of players is breaking down because of year-round youth play and intense training, with coaches and parents working overtime to teach Johnny how to throw 95 mph.
"I have no proof of anything, but I think this travel-ball stuff kids have done is a problem," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "Kids are playing so much. They're specializing in sports at the age of 12, which to me is ludicrous. Somewhere along the way, the system changed, and that's what we have. ... There's a limited number of throws in everyone's arm. I just think the wear and tear [as kids] ... but again, I have no proof."
While growing up in Connecticut, Ausmus didn't pick up a baseball from late August until March, when basketball ended. He played multiple sports and believes it improved his coordination, helping him have his 18-year career as a Major League catcher. He believes it's unhealthy for kids to focus on perfecting one sport rather than enjoying all of them, as he did.
"It's unreal," Ausmus said. "It's pathetic, it really is. It's a joke how much of one sport kids play nowadays. Playing multiple sports makes you a better athlete. But kids don't have a choice. You either play for this team year-round or you don't play. I made my daughter stop playing softball because she was playing fall ball, league ball, All-Stars. They get two weeks off and they go right back into another season. Professional baseball players get four months off. It just doesn't make sense."
Pitch counts often play a role with injuries. Sale, involved in a pitching duel in which both he and Jon Lester took no-hitters into the sixth inning on April 17, wound up throwing 127 pitches over seven innings. He reported soreness in his next bullpen workout.
Ventura has allowed three of his starters to have 120-plus-pitch outings already this season, so maybe Hahn is the wrong guy to complain about how hard North Carolina State coach Elliott Avent is pushing Carlos Rodon. But at a time when Major League pitchers are looking especially vulnerable, it seems odd that Rodon, the preseason favorite to be the first overall pick in the June First-Year Player Draft, has averaged 127 pitches in his last three starts, including two starts of 130-plus pitches.
Like the Astros, Marlins and Cubs, the White Sox are monitoring Rodon closely because he's seen as an impact arm who shouldn't need long in the Minor Leagues.
"It's tough," said Hahn, speaking in general terms, not specifically about Rodon. "I know for a college coach, the incentive to win is obviously quite high -- and that rare talent, that is special enough to be considered at the top of the Draft, or anywhere in the amateur Draft, is what they're banking on to help them get to that promised land. At the same time, when you see some of the things these young kids are having to endure on a weekly basis, you're asking a lot."
Hahn trusts that the North Carolina State staff knows Rodon as well as the White Sox do Sale and their other pitchers. The last thing he -- or anyone else in Major League Baseball -- wants to see is another pitcher on his way to see a surgeon.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.