Cardinals Move to Six-Man Minors Rotation

The St. Louis Cardinals will move to a six-man rotation in A-ball and below in 2011, leaving behind the piggyback or tandem system used since 2007.

An experiment the St. Louis Cardinals began in A-ball in 2007 and used at the rookie level as well, the tandem or piggyback starting system, has been abandoned for 2011. Once the regular season begins for Palm Beach and Quad Cities, in its place will be another innovation, the six-man rotation.

"Dyar (Miller, Cardinals minor league pitching coordinator) and I discussed this off and on for the last few years," farm director John Vuch disclosed on Monday. "The more we talked, the more we liked it."

Perhaps mindful of past gripes about disconnects between the major league staff and player development, the new farm director sought the advice of long-time Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan.

"We ran it by Dunc and he liked it," Vuch said. "Everyone is on board."

Past six-man use

Vuch is unaware of any other minor league systems having deployed the six-man rotation. In a quick internet search, I located a reference to the Los Angeles Angels having used it at least for awhile in 2010 with their Cedar Rapids Class A club.

The practice is common in Japan.

A number of major league clubs have also considered the idea. A handful actually implemented it on a short-term basis, going back at least as far as the 1997 New York Mets. Late that season, manager Bobby Valentine went to six starters due to injuries to several while others with high innings counts were expected to benefit from additional rest.

Not surprisingly, Valentine has a long history of managing in Japan. Here is what he said about it in 2008:

"…I stuck with the six-man rotation and I saw that the arms stayed healthier, the pitchers pitched longer in the game and they seemed to do just fine."

Valentine also noted one big cultural challenge to overcome is the fact that many counting stats are reduced with a six-man rotation. That can lead to a monetary impact, especially in the majors.

Vuch acknowledged the decrease in workload, but estimated the potential impact to be "15 innings or less per pitcher over the course of the season."

How it works

One key positive that Vuch sees is the chance to "almost double our teaching opportunities." With the six-man, a typical routine would be this:

Day 1: throw on the side
Day 2: rest
Day 3: throw on the side
Day 4: rest
Day 5: start in the game
Day 6: rest
Day 7: repeat day 1 and so on.

Vuch also notes that if need be, a pitcher might only throw one side. It would be day 2 in the above example with a total of four days of rest between starts, in two groups of two. "More protection for the younger arms" is one of the Cardinals' stated goals.

In addition to the benefit to the starters, relievers are expected to be asked to go multiple innings more often in the six-man rotation model. Vuch acknowledged that in the past relievers were not always ready to assume that level of workload when called up to St. Louis.

In terms of roster sizes, no changes are expected to be required. "We carried 13 pitchers at Quad Cities, anyway," Vuch said. "We'll see with Palm Beach. We prefer not to, but could add a pitcher from extended spring training (also on the Jupiter, Florida site) if 12 pitchers are not enough."

The Cardinals have no plans to abandon the traditional five-man rotation in Double-A or Triple-A, however. Vuch pointed out that those levels are so close to the majors that the players need to follow the same routine they would when reaching St. Louis.

Closing out the piggyback

Typically in A-ball, the Cardinals used the piggyback for the first two months of the season at most, returning to a traditional rotation by Memorial Day. A combination of mound performance and injuries usually helped with the sort.

Looking back, Vuch commented that the main goal of the piggyback system, cutting down pitching injuries, had been met. The flip side of the coin is that few if any pitchers involved liked the changes in routine that is inherent with the tandem.

When it was first introduced, Vuch explained the piggyback system. "Four groups of two players will be pitching every fourth day. One time, one guy will be going longer, then the second time around, they would flip. So, they will all experience pitching early in games and later in games.

"I think it is something that with the young starters we have, we can see more of them as starters and get more regular work without really affecting anyone's workload too much. You have to protect the younger guys, yet put them in situations where they have to use all their pitches more often," Vuch said in 2007.

Brandon Dickson
Among those in the initial implementation of the tandem rotation in Quad Cities in 2007 are three players invited to major league camp this spring, P.J. Walters, Brandon Dickson and Blake King.

Dickson also pitched in the piggyback arrangement a second season, with Palm Beach in 2008. "It took a lot of getting used to," Dickson recalled. "It was tough starting one time and relieving the next, but it did give us a chance to experience both roles… It de-emphasized the relievers with the pair of starters going right after one another and pitching so deep into the game. It is really a starters program."

King, a starter at the time, but now a reliever, is one of the rare pitchers who had "no problems with it. You still had pitch counts. It gives variety. You never know what role they are going to ask you to play later on. For me, it helped with the transition (to relieving). It never bothered me," King concluded.

At least a one-year trial

The Cardinals plan to stick with the six-man rotation in Quad Cities and Palm Beach for this entire 2011 campaign at least. "We envision doing this all season long," Vuch explained.

At the same time, the dynamics of the short-season rosters and schedules may mean a different approach will be used in Batavia, Johnson City and in the Gulf Coast League.

"We may take a hybrid approach there," Vuch said. "On one hand, we have guys from Extended Spring Training stretched out and ready to go deep into games. On the other hand, we will especially want to protect players from this draft so they might go into a tandem. Halfway through the short-season, we could transform into a six-man rotation."



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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