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.
“The challenge will be staying sharp between outings, figuring out physically what it's going to take to maintain throughout the course of this entire experiment,” Ely said. “You're throwing less, but there's less rest. It can be stressful if you don't go about it the right way.”
The Astros acquired Ely, last year's Pacific League Pitcher of the Year, in an offseason trade with the Dodgers. Ely threw 168 innings in Triple-A Albuquerque. Two years ago, he logged 100 major league innings.
Ely has been part of a traditional five-man rotation his entire career.
“According to research, it should be effective,” Ely said. “We have the arms to make things happen here. Let's see how it pans out.”
It will be a dramatic change for Lyles, a 22-year-old right-hander who made 25 starts last season with the Astros.
A supplemental first-round pick in 2008, Lyles threw a combined 182 innings with Houston and OKC. He's already made 124 pro starts, logging close to 700 innings in five pro seasons.
“No one here has been through this. It will be a little different,” Lyles said. “The good thing is we're all so close in age. We love being around each other. We're going to roll with it and make the most of it.”
One of the Astros' top pitching prospects is Cosart, a 22-year-old right-hander who pitched well in Double-A before a late-season promotion to Oklahoma City. Cosart made 20 combined starts, compiling 110 innings.
Cosart is a prime example how the new concept could benefit his development.
“I'm for whatever they want to do if they think it will make us better,” Cosart said. “They think it will keep us healthy. The key is keeping the shoulder in shape to (someday) pitch 170 to 180 innings (at the big league level).
“It's still 60-feet, 6 inches (to home plate). You still compete against hitters. It's just every four days instead of every five days. I've never had a warm-up routine as a reliever. I'll find out what I'll have to do to get ready coming out of the bullpen. Some people say it's crazy. But we're all in.”
During the Sunday night broadcast of the Astros-Rangers game, ESPN's Orel Hershiser, a former Dodgers great, said he initially questioned the approach at the Triple-A level until he heard about the Astros' pitching glut.
“Like Orel said, when you first hear about it you're against it because it's new and different,” Luhnow said. “The more you learn about it and why we're doing it people realize it does make some sense.
“Change sometimes is scary because people don't know what to expect. But I've done this before (at lower levels). It does work. And we think it's going to work here.”