Perhaps Joe Maddon is fond of time travel, because it appears as if he is going back into baseball’s past to revive what could be a modern market inequity.
And at the center of it all could be the main piece in the deal that sent Starlin Castro to the Yankees.
Adam Warren is an intriguing pitcher. He was the Yankees’ third most valuable reliever in 2014, posting a 1.4 fWAR in 69 appearances, which trailed only set-up ace Dellin Betances (3.1) and closer David Robertson (1.6). In 2015, Warren pitched as a starter and reliever, posting a 2.2 fWAR in 43 appearances (17 starts).
At minimum, Warren is a trustworthy arm with the ability to get outs in relief and starting roles. But where is the upside?
Sometimes when a player is acquired, it’s easy to fall back and try to find a comparable player. And with Warren, I found that to be a difficult and unfair task.
Rather than attempt to squeeze a pitcher into a comp that may or may not fit, it seemed to make more sense to imagine what his role on a successful Cubs team could be.
Citing Terry Pluto’s book Weaver on Strategy, legendary Orioles manager Earl Weaver discussed how he broke in young arms by using them in a long reliever and/or spot starter role. Baumann goes on to wonder why there hasn’t been a manager imaginative enough to work young pitchers in this way.
However, Baumann concludes “the star-prospect-as-swingman concept might just be too risky.” And while it might be too risky for very young, potential future stars, it could be worth it for the kinds of arms the Cubs seem to have stockpiled this offseason.
Maybe Joe Maddon is the manager who is imaginative enough to not just bring back the swingman, but re-purpose him for the modern game.*
Warren fits as the kind of player who could thrive in this environment. He will be 28 in 2016, so, although he’s beyond the hot-shot prospect range, he has the skills to get outs despite not fitting the prototype for a lights-out late-inning reliever or a top-flight starting pitcher.
Further, he seems to fit the kind of pitcher Maddon himself likes. Check out this highlight from a radio interview he did in April 2014:
When young pitchers are coming up, I’d rather see fastball, curveball change-up — actually fastball, change-up, curveball. That would be a great way to teach a young kid how to pitch. Those three pitches are all you need to be a starter in the big leagues.
Maddon really seems to value a good change-up. And it’s interesting to note that his change-up has been Warren’s best pitch in two of his last three seasons.
In 2015, his wCH graded out to be a 7.8, according to FanGraphs. That pitch ranked 14th among pitchers who there at least 130 innings last season. That grade put him just behind Kyle Hendricks (9.2) and ahead of Carlos Martinez (7.5), Dallas Keuchel (7.1), Felix Hernandez (7.0) and others. According to PITCHf/x’s wCH per 100 pitches thrown, Warren’s change (2.46) graded as the fourth best in baseball between Zack Greinke (3.48) and Danny Salazar (2.44).
Finding pitchers like Warren has been difficult, especially with the rise of one-inning specialist. However, there have been a handful of right-handed pitchers in Warren’s age range who have been valuable pieces in a swingmen roles in the last 20 years.
- Tom “Flash” Gordon filled the swingman role as a rookie for the 1989 Royals and in his age 29 season with the 1997 Red Sox. Gordon, who played for the Cubs in 2001 and 2002, posted a 3.3 bWAR in 163.0 innings pitched in 49 games (16 starts). And then did it better in 1997 when he achieved a career-best 3.7 bWAR as he pitched in 182.2 innings in 42 appearances (25 starts).
- Kelvim Escobar made a nice career out of being a swingman as he made 411 appearances split between a reliever (209 games) and starter (202). He even dabbled in some work as a closer. Escobar’s best year as a swingman came in 2003 at age 27 when he pitched 180.1 innings in 41 appearances, 26 of which were starts. Escobar posted a 3.3 bWAR in 2003, which was his best showing in his seven-year career with the Jays. He parlayed that into a full-time starting role with the Angels, where he would go on to post a 4.4 bWAR in 2004 and 4.9 in 2007. As it turns out, the swingman role led Escobar to bigger and better things in later years.
- Scott Sanderson closed out his career with a 5.52 ERA/5.32 FIP with the 1999 Cubs, but posted a career best 118 ERA+ as a swingman with the 1996 Padres. At age 27, Sanderson posted a 3.38 ERA/2.94 FIP and a career best 9.8 K/9 and 3.27 K/BB. He never put it together as a starter, but was a 2.8 bWAR pitcher in 1996 — his only year in which he was a 2-WAR pitcher or better.
There are natural concerns about what kind of workloads Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel will carry at the back-end of the rotation. There could also be lingering uncertainty over what the 2015 innings load carried by Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and John Lackey could mean for 2016.
All things considered, making what’s old new again with the re-purposed swingman might be the Cubs’ best plan of attack toward being proactive in keeping a fresh pitching staff over the course of a 162-game season.
*[Brett: Perhaps even expanding the swingman role to include not only spot starts and longer relief outings, but also high-leverage inning work and match-up work … aka, the super utility pitcher. Yes, I’m still pushing it.]