We're inside seven weeks to go in the 2019 season, which means every pitcher has about 8-9 starts and maybe 45-50 innings remaining.
That is, if they're allowed to use them.
Innings limits are a fact of life. When a guy's workload enters uncharted territory, you have to wonder how much longer before the suits shut him down.
There are some general guidelines. An increase of 30-40 from one season to the next is generally considered responsible and perhaps even necessary for a developing arm, but more and more, organizations are developing their own philosophies on the matter. And more and more, they're keeping us in the dark.
Take this perspective from Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who has a couple obvious innings concerns in Mike Soroka and Max Fried:
"As a young GM [with the Blue Jays], I was pretty militant with innings and things like that, and it didn't work. Even when I was in L.A., and obviously there's as good an organization as you can find, [I was] very cautious with Julio Urias and he still got hurt. You can go through a lot of examples."
Oh, OK. So he's going to let Soroka and Fried do their thing until time runs out, huh? Not quite.
"We're going to put their careers first. If we think the appropriate thing is to scale back or to shut them down, we'll do it. But as we sit here today, we haven't made arrangements to do that. We're just going to play it by ear."
Well, that's ... just ... super helpful.
It's the norm, unfortunately, which is why columns like this one merely speculating on the matter have become essential.
As you'll see here, not all innings concerns are for young pitchers just breaking into the big leagues, and not all of them will indeed fully manifest. But these are the 15 pitchers of value who raise the most concern for me.
Hyun-Jin Ryu won't be shut down in a traditional sense, of course, and seeing as he's a free agent in the offseason, it might be a use-him-and-lose-him situation for the Dodgers. But the fact is the 32-year-old averaged less than 84 innings over the previous three seasons because of injuries, so it's possible his recent IL stint for a sore neck may be just the start of a concerted effort to curtail his workload heading into what the Dodgers hope will be another deep playoff run. They're running away with the entire NL, after all, so why push him beyond what his health history suggests is prudent?
Mike Minor's 200-inning season came way back in 2013. Since then, he's had a multi-year recovery from shoulder issues, an entire season spent in relief, and then last year's 157-inning return to full-time starting duties. The Rangers control him for next year, too, when they'll presumably have designs on a playoff spot. Even if they'd prefer to use him as trade bait this offseason, he's not proving anything to anyone once he passes, say, the 175-inning threshold. It stands to reason the Rangers might have him take the foot off the gas in September.
The Reds are committed to Sonny Gray for the long haul, having signed him for three more years this offseason before they even knew he'd be good again, and they've already gone all-in on next year with the Trevor Bauer acquisition. They have every incentive, then, to cover Gray in bubble wrap and put him high on a shelf somewhere. He has been a workhorse in the past — he has been many things in the past — and so they'll at least want to leave the door open for him to do something along those lines next year. But once he crosses the 160-inning threshold, which he has only done once in the past three seasons, they're toying with their future.
Finally, we arrive at a more traditional innings limit case in which a young guy is on the verge of doing something he hasn't done before. The complication for Domingo German is that the Yankees kind of need him. He has been their best starting pitcher this year, and at least judging by regular season record, they're really good — like, potentially winning the World Series good. They're also shaping up to be runaway winners of the AL East, so they should have the luxury of spacing out German's starts in September, maybe even introducing a phantom IL stint with the hope of ensuring he doesn't go too far beyond 165-170 innings even with a lengthy postseason run.
Again, general manager Alex Anthopoulos doesn't sound like a firm believer in innings limits, and in Mike Soroka's case, it helps that he was so polished and so efficient at such a young age. A 150-inning season in the minors isn't terribly common for a legitimate prospect, and even more unusual is that he did it at age 19. Holding him back, though, is that the Braves basically shut him down for the final two-thirds of last season because of some shoulder inflammation. They're obviously mindful of the workload, which is why he has averaged just 87.2 pitches over his past six starts (five of six innings or more — amazing), but if they hope to accomplish anything in the playoffs this year, they need him to be their ace. They won't let up too much.
Complicating the Caleb Smith situation is that he's a late bloomer, having only now found success in the majors as a 28-year-old, but seeing as he failed to gain traction as a possible trade chip at the deadline, the Marlins seem to view him as an important part of their future. He's pre-arbitration, so he still has plenty of cheap years ahead of him, basically all of which figure to be of greater importance than this one. But particularly after missing much of last year with a strained lat, he needs to put himself in position for a serious workload next year if he's going to make the most of his prime. Maybe 160, which is about what he's on pace for, is a reasonable goal after all.