There is a game of musical chairs ongoing in the Hot Stove that is going to leave a lot of teams standing without a place to sit.
All you have to do is begin adding up how many clubs are searching for starting pitching, particularly quality starting pitching and especially how many clubs with intentions to try to win next year need more than one — like the Mets, Dodgers, Cardinals, Giants and a few others.
You are reading: Teams turning to their bullpens to solve starter shortage
The number is going to far outstrip the number of capable starters available, which in the little realm called capitalism means supply is going to fall far short of demand. Thus, prices almost certainly are going to be higher than most early projections. For example, did anyone anticipate Aaron Nola getting a guaranteed seventh year even, say, 10 days ago? But he did so on a $175 million pact to stay with the Phillies.
But as interesting as that is, on the same day Philadelphia was holding a press conference for Nola, the Braves announced Monday that they had signed Reynaldo Lopez for three years at $30 million … to start .. something he has not done regularly since the COVID-shortened 2020 season. Over the last two seasons, Lopez relieved in 128 games, tied (among others) with Clay Holmes for 27th most in the majors.
It is clear that teams are going to have to find starters not just everywhere from the Americas to Asia, but also in their own bullpens.
As one NL executive said, “That’s a fair assumption. It speaks to the difficulty in acquiring dependable starting pitching. Those starters who are obviously both effective and dependable [think Nola] are going to be priced out of many clubs’ realistic price range. So clubs in need of starters are going to be more willing to take additional risks at lower price points. Those risks can include health, role, altered repertoires, etc.”
When it comes to changing roles, the Padres took a calculated risk in this area last season. Seth Lugo had pitched exclusively as a reliever in 2021-22 with the Mets and seemed set in that role. The Padres signed him for two years at $15 million as a starter. In 26 starts, Lugo pitched to a 3.57 ERA, opted out of the second year of is contract and is now a coveted free agent as a starter.
Michael King and Zack Littell appeared set in relief roles before becoming two of the better starters in the majors during the second half last year when the Yankees and Rays, respectively, got desperate due to injuries. King (2.23 ERA in nine starts) and Littell (3.41 in 14 starts) will both go to 2024 camps to stretch out as starters.
“It makes sense to me [to see if there are relief candidates who can start],” Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake said. “You can create more value by having more guys that can give you ‘length.’ It doesn’t necessarily need to be labeled starter or reliever, but stretching guys out and having hybrid roles will probably be a trend. A few teams basically ran two-, three-man rotations last year with a bunch of flex guys picking up the innings in different fashions. We used three or four of those types of hybrid roles at different points throughout the year. It allows you to utilize your personnel a little more creatively if done right.”
For the Yankees, Jhony Brito and Randy Vasquez also fluctuated in roles. The Giants, particularly late in the season, were in an extreme mode of using two traditional starters in Alex Cobb and Logan Webb and deploying openers, hybrids and length pitchers to try to survive.
In the postseason, it became evident that there have never been more pitchers and yet less pitching. Arizona, for example, made it to the World Series using just three traditional starters and having to go to a bullpen game twice during the playoffs. The Diamondbacks did not have a No. 4 starter, much less a fifth. This may be an age when starters are asked to do less than ever before — but every team still pretty much needs a full rotation complement.
“I think any avenues to develop starters are going to be something teams will look at,” Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen said.
The Braves are not out on more traditional starters even after failing to land Nola. They have been tied to Sonny Gray, for example. Still, they turned to Lopez, who fits a criteria that is needed for this kind of experiment: 1) someone with starting pitching in his past, 2) still possessing a multi-pitch repertoire to try to return to the rotation and 3) a desire to make the transition.
Lopez started 65 games for the White Sox between 2018-19. The Braves feel he is in a place in his career to use his full arsenal better as a starter. Plus, they see value in stretching him out no matter what so that he can be used — if necessary — as an opener or hybrid, and even if he is a full-time starter, Atlanta knows it can put him back in the pen if necessary should the Braves reach the postseason.
Because in this game of musical chairs, the biggest problem any team craves is to have too many starting pitchers.