The idea of an 11-man pitching staff has not left my mind since Erik's interview with Andrew Friedman where he asked him a question regarding an 11-man pitching staff. Friedman responded by saying "To this point, we've found that twelve pitchers has made the most sense. Having twelve allows us to make the right tactical moves on a nightly basis to win games while still supporting our starters and keeping them strong."
The answer Friedman gave makes complete sense. It allows Joe Maddon to create tough matchups by keeping one extra arm in the pen and assures a rested pen. But, with Big Game James switching his nickname to Complete Game James in 2011 the Rays bullpen was much more rested than ever and that 12th man was rarely used.
After the Rays acquired Josh Lueke from the Mariners in the John Jaso trade I took a long look at Lueke and saw that eight of his last 13 games he pitched more than an inning and up to three innings at times. This is a guy that can give the Rays multiple relief innings and potentially do it regular basis.
The fact that the Rays acquired a power reliever with the ability to go multiple innings and not be a mop up guy got me thinking about the 11-man pitching staff. What would it take to run a team like this? One free agent came to mind that could help make this vision a reality and his name is Rich Harden.
Harden has battled injuries and seen a major decrease in groundball rates which has led to a crazy spike in his homerun rates. Since 2008 his HR/9 rate has gone from 0.67-1.47-1.76-1.85. That coincides with his groundball rate going from the mid-40% range early in his career to 37.8% in 2009, 34.5% in 2010, and 31.5% in 2011.
As one would conclude from the major increase in homerun rate, his ERA went from 2.07 in 2008 to 5.12 in 2011 with a career worse 5.58 in 2010. Most of those stats are probably scaring you by now, and they should, but there is some hope of excellence in that arm.
Harden strikes out a lot of batters. He has a career 9.2 K/9 and has a 10.1 K/9 since 2008. He does walk a lot of guys but thanks to high strikeout rates his xFIP has been below 3.70 in four of the past five seasons.
Harden has done nearly all of his work as a starter in his career and over the past four seasons. The recent lack of success, high pitch counts, and constant injuries would lead one to believe he would be willing to take a relief pitching role. But not just any relief pitching role, a multiple-inning relief role in high-leverage situations.
Harden has pitched exceptionally well in his career in the first inning of a game with 180 strikeouts in 160 innings of facing team's 1-2-3 hitters. Even better is that he has fared well in the 2nd inning of games, facing the middle of the team's order and posting 177 strikeouts in 160 innings.
I point that out because Harden has excelled in the first two innings of a game he pitches in while facing the best hitters on a team. He has a 2.73 K/BB rate, 10.0 K/9, and a 3.29 ERA in those first two innings and has held opponents to a .206 batting average.
Harden, though, starts to wear down after the first two innings with steep drops in ERA, HR/9, and K/9 in his third inning of work.
Also, if the Rays do not trade any starting pitchers they could easily put one of Niemann, Davis, or Moore/Cobb in the pen and add yet another multiple-inning arm to the bullpen mix.
If the Rays could work out a deal to get Harden in as a reliever, add him to Lueke, and Jake McGee, the Rays would have three relievers who could put in multiple innings of work. Add one of the plethora of starters to the mix and I believe the Rays very well could work with an 11-man pitching staff in 2012.