I hate cross sports references, but this idea dawned on me almost a week ago. Then Jed Hoyer on Friday morning compared pitching injuries around the game of baseball to the NFL. So perhaps I was onto something with this comparison to running backs in the NFL. The comparison rests on two central tenets. Both are considered (and rightfully so) essential positions for winning championships in their respective sports and the durability of those players has decreased dramatically in the past decade. The usage of each position has changed dramatically in the past few years, but resource allocation in baseball remains high for this necessary but volatile position.
There is no doubt that pitchers are not as durable as they were in previous eras. If you need a visual representation here is the trend in Tommy John Surgeries leading through 2012. 2014 is well on its way to shattering that mark established in 2012, and Tommy John is probably the most preferable negative outcome for a pitcher.
There are all sorts of theories out there from the velocity at which pitchers throw now to pitch usage to amount of pitches thrown. There is no one true answer to what is causing this huge increase in arm injuries but the reality is that this trend is not reversing any time soon. Even though teams changed the way that pitchers are used the trend continues. NFL teams have used more running backs and limited the amount of touches that each individual running back get as well to preserve their effectiveness. As mentioned though Tommy John Surgery is a preferable outcome to what has happened to dominant pitchers that just lose it.
Justin Verlander is the most recent poster child of dominant pitcher going from great to toast, in fairness to Verlander he could bounce back but it does not look good today. Seriously anyone that tells you they expected Verlander to be the third or fourth best starter on the Tigers this year is lying. Verlander was suppose to avoid these issues with his freakish abilities to go deep into games and increase his velocity throughout the game. Now Verlander looks beyond mortal and might be an albatross for the Tigers whenever the money runs out. If Verlander was some weird exception in recent baseball history it would be one thing, but the number of guys like Tim Lincecum that have gone from dominant to just a guy or worse should prove that we really don't know when it comes to pitching.
The philosophy that I am trying to advocate for is something I have believed in football for a long time which is you do not lock yourself into a running back. You keep your commitments short (which is easy in the non-guaranteed contract world of the NFL) and you are always developing the next running back. This is a philosophy that Jed Hoyer mentioned the Tampa Bay Rays employing by keeping young pitchers in the minors. Always having a stable of young, talented arms to bring up when needed. The Cubs are working on developing that stable of arms in the minors, but the other aspect of it is shunning what the front office has termed the necessary evil of long term pitching contracts.
There may come a point where the Cubs have to give a deal that you hope you get lucky with a pitcher that remains what he was when you signed him. However, at this point I am glad that the Cubs balked at offering Samardzija the Homer Bailey money he was seeking. I also hope the Cubs avoid going after Jon Lester or Max Scherzer given the ridiculous contracts that each is likely to command. The best strategy probably remains targeting undervalued arms that Chris Bosio can fix. Justin Masterson ranks pretty highly on my list of buy low candidates right now for this offseason as the Cubs hopefully follow the model that the Cardinals employed successful for a long time a decade ago. The track record of betting on pitchers remaining what they are for more than a few years is rather low, and a gamble I don't want to Cubs to make with the payroll ceilings they have currently.