When the news broke that Anibal Sanchez had suffered a setback in his rehab and may not pitch in the rest of 2014, most fans' next question was "Who is the fifth starter now?" However, some started asking a different question.
Do the Tigers even need a fifth starter?
While the idea seems outlandish in today's pitch count era, it makes sense. The Tigers have relied upon Robbie Ray, Buck Farmer, and Drew VerHagen for nine starts this season, and the three have combined for an 8.44 ERA in 37 1/3 innings. Farmer and Ray started back-to-back games over the weekend and recorded just eight outs. Combined. The Tigers allowed 32 runs in those two games. VerHagen has the only untarnished stat line with a 5.40 ERA in one start, but he is currently on the 60 day disabled list with a stress fracture in his lower back.
Unfortunately, the schedule does not allow for an off day every fifth day so that the Tigers can use four starters on a full four days' rest for the rest of the season. While this will be the case in the playoffs, the Tigers need to get there first. Left-hander Kyle Lobstein is scheduled to start against the New York Yankees on Thursday, and the Tigers will need another starter for Saturday's doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox.
But what if the Tigers decided to forego the idea of a fifth starter? Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, and David Price all rank among the top eight starters in the American League in rWAR, and Justin Verlander was showing signs of improvement before he missed a start due to shoulder tightness. Giving the four of them as many starts as possible while limiting the number of innings given to starters who are clearly not major league ready makes sense for a team in the middle of a playoff race.
There are plenty of downsides to this idea, though. While some may argue the necessity and efficacy of pitch counts -- stop rolling your eyes, Patrick -- overworking your best arms down the stretch could lead to increased fatigue and injury risk in October. Pitchers are used to taking the mound every five days now, and speeding up that timetable puts more strain on a starter's arm than they have trained for. Justin Verlander would be an especially risky case since he just returned from a shoulder injury.
The time of year also plays a role in this decision. With rosters expanding on September 1, the Tigers can afford to piggyback fifth starters, lessening the pressure on Ray, Lobstein, or another minor leaguer to step right into the rotation and deliver a quality start. Brad Ausmus can be more aggressive in pulling his starter if things are not going well, as there will be more bullpen arms to eat innings down the stretch.
Personally, I don't know if the reward of using a four man rotation is worth the risk. The Tigers already have four starters capable of carrying the team to a victory in any given start and they control their own destiny in the playoff picture. Last weekend's meltdowns from Ray and Farmer were concerning, but the Tigers should be able to find a starter or two to give them some decent innings in a handful of starts in September.
What do you think? Is a four man rotation a feasible option for the last 32 games of the season?