Royals, Tigers going young ... and down the tubes?

Filled with young and inexperienced pitching staffs, the Royals and Tigers will certainly face tough times in 2003.

Originally Published: March 28, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Well, this is different.

Monday, we're about to see something that no living baseball fan has ever seen before.

Beginning next Monday, two different major-league teams will feature pitching rotations that can each claim fewer than 22 major-league victories.

And that's something that hasn't happened since 1902.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau (by way of the Kansas City Star), prior to this season there have been only six Opening Day rotations featuring starters with fewer than 22 starts among them. Here's them now:

               MLB Wins  Record
1902 Phillies     14     56- 81    
1902 Cardinals    16     56- 78
1998 Marlins      16     54-108
1901 Tigers       19     74- 51
1943 Athletics    19     49-105
1937 Athletics    21     54- 97

Runelvys Hernandez
Runelvys Hernandez is 3-0 with a 0.45 ERA in three starts this season.

That's not a lot of teams ... and I'm going to ignore three of them. In the early part of the 20th century, things were ... well, things were different. For one thing, the American League was practically brand-new, which meant the pitchers were spread pretty thin around both leagues. For another, the demarcation between the major leagues and the minor leagues wasn't nearly so clear as it would become. There were many, many pitchers in the minor leagues who were just as good as a number of American and National League pitchers.

So I think the meaningful list consists of only three teams, and this time I'll add another column.

               MLB Wins  Record
1998 Marlins      16     54-108
1943 Athletics    19     49-105
1937 Athletics    21     54- 97

The 1998 Marlins and the 1943 Athletics stand out, because the Marlins weren't really trying to win and the Athletics were trying to cobble together a pitching staff during a global war. The '37 Athletics don't really have an excuse, or at least not one that I can easily discern. In The Athletics of Philadelphia, author David M. Jordan doesn't mention the youthful rotation, but he does note that in improving from eighth place in 1936 to seventh in 1937, the A's saw their attendance skyrocket from 285,173 to 430,733 (yes, those were different times).

I thought it might be fun to see what those A's starters did after the first day of the 1937 season.

             Before   After
Al Williams      0       4
George Caster    4      72
Bud Thomas       0      24
Buck Ross        9      47
Lynn Nelson      8      25

Caster had won four games before the 1937 season began, and 72 games afterward. Not bad, but it's apparent that none of these guys became big stars. By the way, I should mention the limitations of this little exercise. Pitching rotations didn't really exist in the 1930s. Because of the schedules, which included many more off days and many more doubleheaders than today, the manager simply went with whichever starter he thought gave him the best chance of winning, and that starter might have pitched three days ago or 10 days ago.

What's more, a fellow named Harry Kelley, who's apparently not considered part of the season-opening "rotation" by the Elias Bureau, did make 29 starts for the A's that season.

So while it might be fun (for me, at least) to discuss the 1937 Athletics, they're not a good analogue for a modern-day team. With that in mind, let's take a loving look at those wonderful Florida Marlins, circa 1998.

               Wins   Wins
              Before  Since
L. Hernandez     9     60     
Felix Heredia    6     16
Rafael Medina    0      3
Eric Ludwick     1      1
Brian Meadows    0     37

Livan Hernandez is, of course, still adding to his career victories, while Heredia's finding them elusive while performing as a left-handed one-out guy (or LOOGY, as John Sickels calls them). Meadows just got sent to Triple- Nashville, but he's got a good head on his shoulders and has the makings of a fine pitching coach. Neither Medina nor Ludwick pitched last year (at least not on this continent).

So the Marlins lost 108 games, and just one of those five season-opening starters has enjoyed a pretty good career since.

The 2002 Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals are obviously hoping things go better for them, but the odds would seem to be stacked against them. For the sake of posterity -- because by June, things will likely have become far less interesting -- here are Detroit's and Kansas City's rotations of the moment ...

            MLB Wins
Mike Maroth    6
Adam Bernero   4
J. Bonderman   0
Nate Cornejo   5
Gary Knotts    3
              18

Detroit's Jeremy Bonderman is one of the game's top pitching prospects. On the other hand, he's only 20, he hasn't pitched a single inning above Class A, and his impressive work this spring came mostly against fellow greenhorns. But if he doesn't get hurt, someday he'll be pretty good and maybe great. With all due respect to the other four guys, they're place-holders. If one of them winds up winning more than 50 games in the majors, it'll be something of an upset.

               MLB Wins
R. Hernandez      4
Jeremy Affeldt    3
Miguel Asencio    4 
Chris George      4
Darrell May       6
                 21

Where the Tigers have one big-time arm in their rotation, the Royals have two: Runelvys Hernandez and Jeremy Affeldt. Neither of those guys have Bonderman's talent, but they're both significantly more experienced and aren't as likely to suffer a serious injury.

Most people really don't care much about who finishes in last place. But when you're a Royals fan, you care. So I'll be watching this battle between Kansas City and Detroit all season long. At this moment, the Tigers seem to have the edge, because their rotation is a tad more questionable and they don't have Mike Sweeney and Carlos Beltran.

I've got the Royals losing 99 games this season, but that's with the assumption that Beltran is with the club all season (he probably won't be). Still, that pales next to the Tigers, who I'm projecting for 107 losses ... one short of Livan Herndandez's 1998 Marlins.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.

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