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Consider the plight of a modern day general manager. His team needs pitching, but a somewhat consistent league-average starter will cost him at least $30 million in present value, and possibly upwards of $50 million. He knows this is too much to spend, but the idea starting the season with Mark Redman in his rotation is keeping him up at night. What to do?

Say a married couple of reasonable means is looking to buy a house, but the market is irrationally high at the moment (as we have already discovered the market for pitching currently is). They have three main options: 1) buy an overpriced house; 2) continue to rent, hoping that the market comes back down soon enough; 3) acknowledge that the market is inefficient, and look for alternative ways to beat it.

Viewing starting pitchers in the same manner, teams have generally acted in one of these three ways with different levels of success. Jeff Suppan, Barry Zito, and Gil Meche (among others) were, essentially, the irrationally expensive houses on the market. Greg Maddux, signed to a one-year deal by the Padres, would be the equivalent of renting, in the sense that he fills a pressing need but is not a long-term asset.

Then there’s the box of mystery that is option three. For teams, this option is the riskiest in the short run. While expensive long-term contracts can be crippling down the road, they usually represent at least short-term boosts. Choosing to experiment can produce wildly successful results in the future, but could be devastating in the present.

Just ask Walt Jocketty. Unwilling to bid ridiculous amounts for Suppan, Zito, and the rest, the Cardinals general manager instead chose to build his rotation from spare parts. Following ace Chris Carpenter, the Cards went with two in-house relievers (Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper), one homegrown talent without much big league success on his record (Anthony Reyes), and one discount-rate free agent pick up (Kip Wells, signed for one year at $4 million). The results have been substandard, at best. Carpenter made only one start before heading to the disabled list for the rest of the year, and only Wainwright has distinguished himself as a quality Major League starter. Both Reyes and Wells have been pulled from the rotation at different points during the season.

The Washington Nationals also refused to enter into the free agent waters, instead going with John Patterson and four freely available talents to start the season. Like Carpenter, Patterson has spent the majority of the season sidelined, leaving the team’s fate in the hands of (count ‘em) twelve other starters, many of whom had been out of the big leagues for extended periods of time (the now famous Mike Bacsik hadn’t pitched in a Major League game since 2004, nor had Jason Simontacchi). While the Nationals have played well above any reasonable expectations, this is more a commentary on the expectations than the team.

So is it possible to field a competitive team without delving into this absurd market? Yes, but proper evaluation is crucial. The Cardinals were on the right track, but put too much faith in the wrong pitchers. Looper and Wells were considered projects coming into the season; Looper had never started a game in his career, and Wells was four years removed from his last above average season. Reyes, meanwhile, had struggled to keep the ball down throughout his career, which continues to hurt him despite high strikeout rates.

There certainly are undervalued starters out there, but the key is looking in the right places. One way to find them is to look past ERA, and focus on defense independent stats (strikeouts, walks, and groundball percentage). Perhaps a pitcher was done in by the defense behind him (Paul Maholm), or his home stadium (Matt Belisle). Or maybe he is coming back from an injury and can be had at a discount rate, like Chris Carpenter did with the Cardinals or Jon Lieber with the Yankees.

Or maybe the answer lies in the thinking of an old Cardinals executive, one Wesley Branch Rickey. Rickey was the market leader of his day, finding new sources of inexpensive talent in order to avoid paying out huge sums to risky bonus babies. The second most famous of these new sources was the original farm system. Rickey’s teams would sign hundreds of amateurs, stressing “quality out of quantity.” Naturally, a very small percentage of these players would become major leaguers, but that was enough to build great teams in both St. Louis and Brooklyn (and arguably Pittsburgh, though the Buccos’ eventual success came after Rickey’s departure).

Even with today’s more structured competition for amateur talent, teams could still employ the same type of logic. Rany Jazayerli’s seminal study of the draft for Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) showed that hitters are almost always a better bet than similarly aged pitchers in the early rounds of the draft. This makes perfect sense: unlike position players, pitchers progress nonlinearly, and are inherently subject to much greater injury risk. The logical course of action, then, is to stock up on pitching in the later rounds of the draft, while using big bonus money on position players.

Pitchers lend themselves to this type of strategy in another sense, as well. While hitters have skill sets that can be improved upon but rarely fundamentally changed, pitchers often add to their arsenal mid-career. Bruce Sutter was a struggling minor leaguer in 1974 when he learned to throw a splitter. His struggles ended quickly.

Perhaps more than any other team, the Pirates have focused on pitching in the early rounds of the draft. Their results have been ineffective, in the same sense that the Great Depression was a setback. Time and time again they have been burned. In the last nine drafts, they have selected a pitcher in the first round seven times. Five of those seven have had major arm surgery, with the only survivors being 2003 pick Maholm and recent draftee Daniel Moskos (who may simply need a bit more time). For a small market club, these blows are disastrous. As a result, the Bucs’ farm system has struggled in recent years, and there isn’t much on the horizon either (the two significant prospects in the organization are the two position players they used first round picks on during this recent timespan: outfielder Andrew McCutchen and catcher-turned-third-baseman Neil Walker).

While there is only so much space in an organization’s farm system for more players, teams should be looking for ways to create space. This could be done by adding another minor league affiliate, or opening more academies in the Caribbean. These tactics could bring enormous amounts of value to any team, but those in small markets could benefit the most.

And most importantly, the price tag would be far less extravagant than that of the next Jeff Suppan.

Feedback? Write a comment, or e-mail the author at shawn(AT)squawkingbaseball.com

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