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Astros to use 'piggyback' rotation at Double- and Triple-A levels

By Dayn Perry | Baseball Writer

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Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is trying something bold with his young starting pitchers. (Getty Images)

The Astros under GM Jeff Luhnow already have an established knack for going against convention, but this might be the boldest step yet.

Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle writes that the Astros will deploy their starting pitchers at the Double-A and Triple-A levels in a "piggyback" fashion -- i.e., two starting pitchers will make scheduled appearances in each game -- for at least part of the 2013 season. Courtesy of Smith, here's the structure and the thinking behind it:

"The primary purpose is to allocate your innings to your starters and not limit it to your starters," Luhnow said. "We've got more than five. You could argue we have nine. We've really got nine (AAA) starters."

The Astros' AAA starters will be placed in four groups of two, with each group throwing every fifth day. Rather than predetermine the team's 1-5 rotation, Luhnow wants the team's top five starters at each minor-league level to "emerge."

"They're pitching more frequently," Luhnow said. "The person that starts the game the first time around will … not start the game the second time around. So in other words, group one, the starter will either go five innings or 75 pitches, whichever comes first. The second starter will go four innings or 60 pitches, whichever comes first."

Luhnow learned the approach during his days as a scouting and player-development exec with the Cardinals, but the Cardinals "piggybacked" solely at the lower levels of the system. Luhnow says, as far as he knows, no team has attempted this at the Double- and Triple-A levels. Until now.

One obvious criticism is that this might prevent the Astros' starting pitchers -- those closest to reaching the highest level -- from becoming accustomed to major-league workloads and learning to pitch deep into games. There's probably something to that. On the other hand, perhaps Luhnow's instincts are correct in that this strategy will allow them to shepherd along a larger number of potential starters. The only certainty is that lasting judgments can't be made until we see how this plays out.

It bears mentioning that Luhnow says the Astros won't use the "tandem rotation" for the entire season. As well, they're open to changing directions should attrition demand it.

You must credit the Astros for eschewing received wisdom on occasion, but sometimes received wisdom is, well, wise.

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