The current atmospheric conditions blanketing the northern plains of Texas are decidedly evocative of mid-December more so than the second week of February, but that's exactly where we find ourselves right now -- a handful of days away from pitchers and catchers reporting, at which point we can expect a sudden barrage of excessively optimistic spring training features that are certain to intensify our collective baseball high. Sure, the honeymoon will end if/when the first significant injury strikes, but that's just how this time of year always seems to work, and I doubt most of us would have it any other way.
Spring training also marks the time of year when the roster battles begin to be fought in earnest, but in a surprising -- and very much welcome -- departure from the norm, the Opening Day starting rotation is virtually set in stone from No. 1-3 (Rich Harden, Scott Feldman and Colby Lewis) and tentatively set at No. 4 (Tommy Hunter, who appears to have the inside track on the job despite his modest protests to the contrary).
And what of the No. 5 spot, you ask? Try something loosely resembling organized chaos, with no fewer than six viable pitchers between the ages of 21 and 28 preparing to engage in combat for the right to occupy a single vacancy. No more screwing around with Kris Benson and those of his replacement-level ilk. What a novel concept that is.
Another week or three will have to elapse before we can get a better sense of exactly where each of those six pitchers falls in the rotation pecking order, but I figured that it might be instructive to take advantage of this intervening time period by means of a quick performance-based look at the six-man competition, using the intuitive 20-to-80 scouting scale to (subjectively) rate each hurler based on three critical dimensions of pitching success, and then applying some pre-spring training odds to add a little perspective to the mix:
[Note: I attempted to frame all six pitchers with the context of pitching in a starting rotation, which explains why, for example, Neftali Feliz finds himself saddled with a mere 60-grade rating as far as missing bats goes. Nobody's expecting him to continue posting stratsopsheric strikeout numbers in a starting role; it's certainly possible that he will accomplish exactly that, but I'm keeping my expectations tempered for the purposes of this exercise.]
Plentiful rotation options, to be certain, and that multi-layered depth consequently acts as a nice little safeguard against the possibility of injury/ineffectiveness befalling the eventual No. 5 starter, since adequate replacements will be waiting in stand-by mode. However, it occurs to me that there's still value in choosing the right pitcher in the first place, whether through exacting scouting- and saber-based analysis or blind luck, because Feliz, C.J. Wilson and Dustin Nippert will no longer be immediate fall-back rotation options once the season gets cranking. You cannot, after all, repurpose a relief pitcher as a starting pitcher overnight. That transition takes a little bit of time.
It's also interesting that Derek Holland grades out better than Brandon McCarthy across the board and still seems to be lagging a bit behind his veteran counterpart, but several things merit mentioning: (a) if McCarthy is truly a ticking time bomb every season, it makes some degree of sense to squeeze as many league-average innings out of him as possible before things turn for the worse, and (b) these tentative pre-spring training odds could be flipped on their head very, very quickly once it becomes apparent where the likes of Holland and McCarthy currently stand in terms of health and progress made over the winter.
[Credit goes to Lookout Landing's Matthew Carruth for inspiring this post.]