David Ross made it clear that he’s holding an open competition for the fifth rotation spot, adding that would-be candidates Keegan Thompson and Adbert Alzolay are ticketed for the bullpen. The manager mentioned Hayden Wesneski, Adrian Sampson, and Javier Assad — all of whom made at least four starts last year — specifically and said some non-roster pitchers would be considered as well.
While that may be true, it really seems like Wesneski and Sampson are in their own tier when it comes to battling for a starting role. As Sahadev Sharma spelled out for The Athletic, both pitchers are working on different improvements to their fastballs as a means by which to stand out. Neither has overpowering stuff in that regard, so it’s about maximizing what they do have through little tweaks.
Sampson said he was already touching 93 mph in his first live bullpen, putting him ahead of where he would usually be at this early stage. His four-seam averaged 92.6 mph last season, so already being near that mark means his offseason plyo ball work could see him kissing the mid-90s more frequently.
“It’s just like working out your arm, is how I viewed it,” Sampson told Sharma. “When I start playing catch, I already feel warm and ready to go. Whether I see results with velo or not, I think health-wise, my arm’s going to be a lot better.”
In addition to the other changes he’s made to his arsenal, this lends even more credence to the idea that his recent performance is sustainable. That’s particularly true of Sampson’s ability to limit batters with high heat, which is surprising until you start digging into it a little further. He’s very good at locating pitches where he wants them, so working the sinker and fastball inside/outside kept batters from squaring him up as often as they had in the past.
Wesneski is also working on his fastball, but velo hasn’t been a concern. Instead, he’s trying to incorporate more ride to go with his natural cut in order to prevent batters from being able to sit on what had been a below-average offering.
“The four-seam, I’m hoping to keep the shape but add ride to it,” Wesneski explained. “Not necessarily a stupid amount of ride, but just get it to average. I’m not asking for above-average here. Just something that’s firmer and something that stays up a little bit. If they foul off that pitch or swing through it once or twice, it’s a win. Because that sets up everything. That’s where it starts, now go ahead and try to guess which way the ball is going to go.”
I like that both pitchers are hungry to be better and also that they each noted health and/or repeatability as reasons to make changes. My way-too-early prediction is that Sampson will end up earning the spot, if for no other reason than I think Wesneski’s stuff will benefit more from being in the bullpen. That’s not to say I believe Wesneski is a better reliever than starter, just that I don’t think Sampson sees as much of a bump from shorter outings.
All things considered, I’d like to see David Ross opt for a six-man rotation or some kind of piggyback situation that sees more than five pitchers getting multiple innings on a regular basis. This idea of being creative with the staff is something I’ve espoused for a while now, so maybe I’m just trying to manifest it. With most of the positions all set, the bullpen and this rotation competition are going to draw most of my attention this spring.