When the RedHawks open their Pacific Coast League season Thursday night in Memphis, they will be part of an experiment that's created a buzz throughout baseball.
The Houston Astros organization is using “eight-man” pitching rotations at every minor league level, including Triple-A Oklahoma City.
The concept is four sets of starting pitchers comprising a four-man rotation with roles reversed each time through the rotation.
“We had eight starters at every level,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “We wanted to give them all the opportunity to get innings to continue to develop. Those are eight quality arms. Rather than limiting it to five and putting the other three in the bullpen we give all eight of them an opportunity. It's going to be fun to watch.”
The organization acquired numerous pitching prospects in trades last season. Houston officials hope the experiment will help determine who should start and who should move to a relief role.
In his second season as Houston's GM, after eight years in the Cardinals organization, Luhnow believes the approach also will pinpoint arms they can build around.
Houston can experiment more than most organizations because the Astros are coming off 107- and 106-loss seasons.
“Our guys are coming to grips with it,” Luhnow said. “We're not expecting two guys to pitch every inning of every game. It will come down to what the score is. Do the bullpen guys need work?”
Because it's never been tried at the Triple-A level, baseball executives will monitor the RedHawks in April and May to see how the experiment pans out.
“We're embracing this plan,” said RedHawks pitching coach Steve Webber. “The bottom line is we want to benefit the organization, help our guys improve, give a lot of guys a chance to start. I think it's a good idea. We'll let it play out.”
In mid- to late May, the RedHawks will revert to a traditional five-man rotation. In the meantime, the experiment begins Thursday night in Memphis.
Jordan Lyles, the RedHawks' opening day starter, will throw five innings or 75 pitches. Paul Clemens, no relation to former Major League star Roger, could throw the final four innings or 60 pitches.
Jarred Cosart will start Friday, “piggybacked” by Dallas Keuchel. On Saturday, John Ely will start with Brett Oberholtzer coming out of the bullpen. On Sunday, Rudy Owens will start, “piggybacked by Jose Cisnero.
When the RedHawks continue an eight-game road trip in Round Rock, roles flip-flop. Clemens, Keuchel, Oberholtzer and Cisnero will start the four games against the Express backed up by Lyles, Cosart, Ely and Owens.
The biggest adjustment is pitchers are accustomed to pitching in five-man rotations. Now they'll throw every four days.