The Friars have been a decent offensive club for the last two seasons, nearly leading all BARB clubs in runs scored in their sole playoff season (2011). But the rotation? Ever since the Finches traded away Justin Verlander in their inaugural season, they've lacked a true #1 starter, the kind who can take over a short series and turn a .500 club into a winner.
Instead, the Finches have run through a series of middle-of-the-rotation starters and journeymen, many drawn from free agency. Attempts to flesh out the rotation by drafting established big league starters haven't been too successful, either: in just one year, three lefties in their twenties (Jorge De La Rosa, Dallas Braden and Clayton Richard) were all lost to season-ending injuries. "It makes you appreciate the beauty of a horse like Bronson Arroyo," admitted team president Scott Hatfield. "Never misses a start, usually gives you at least five innings, even if he gets hit around." And, indeed, the 37-year-old Arroyo is not only better-conditioned than many pitchers ten years his junior, he's been the one constant on Darwin's staff since joining the club in 2009.
But is that about to change? Finally, after some frustrating stalled picks (Mike Montgomery, Tyler Matzek, Matt Hobgood, Randall Delgado) the Friars are finally reaping the benefit of deep drafts from the last three seasons. For the first time ever, the system seems stocked with legitimate #1 and #2 starting prospects, some of whom appear ready to finally contribute to the big-league club:
Clay Buchholz, added as a free agent, is again showing why he has legitimate strikeout potential. Young lefty Derek Holland, added in a 2012 trade, seems to be flashing the form that made him a top-20 starter in 2011 again. 2010 draftee Shelby Miller's three-pitch repertoire has improved by leaps-and-bounds since this time last year, when he was struggling in AAA. He is now clearly ready to contend for a spot in St. Francis's rotation. Travis Wood, a castoff free agent signed off the waiver wire in mid-2012, has given six or more innings in each of his first four starts this year. 2013 draftee Wade Miley provides Wood and veteran Cliff Richard heavy competition from the southpaw side. Most importantly, 2012 draftee Matt Harvey probably has improved more than any other minor-league arm in the last year, moving from someone thought to be bidding for a fifth rotation spot to ace-like status, as his average fastball has ticked up nearly two miles an hour since being acquired by the Friars.
It all means that St. Francis is on the verge of having a respectable, affordable, young cadre of starters ready to contribute to the parent club, able to give their teammates quality innings and reduce the heavy workload soldiered by the Friars pen the last two seasons. "This is the best pitching we've ever had, and we think it's going to get better as the year goes on," enthused obviously-unobjective team president Scott Hatfield. "Our offense, if healthy, is improved as well compared to 2011, so this is going to be our best club yet on paper. Can we compete with Pottsylvania, that just won a world championship, or with Casselton, which has the best record in the division overall the last five years? We think we can, and hopefully by the second half we'll have the depth and payroll flexibility to make moves to push us forward."