The Houston Astros' grand pitching experiment in the Minors is under way.
At every level they are using tandem starters, with one pitcher throwing five innings or 75 pitches, the other throwing four innings or 60 pitches.
When the tandem's next turn comes up in the rotation, the "reliever" will flip roles with the "starter."
Fans and media have questioned the logic behind such a system, but they are hardly alone. Even top Astros pitching prospect Jarred Cosart was skeptical when he found out his organization's plan.
"When they first told us in Spring Training, it was about the third day [after] I'd been sent down from Major League camp. I'm not in the best of moods, so that threw a little icing on the cake," said Cosart, Houston's No. 4 prospect according to MLB.com. "At first you're like, 'I'm not going to get my innings' or 'I'm not going to be able to go deep into games.' But 75 pitches over five innings, that's pretty standard. Obviously if the time comes to get called up, they're going to stretch you out. They're not just going to throw you into the fire."
So far it has been good for Cosart, who has gone 2-0 with a 1.02 ERA in three starts and one relief outing for Oklahoma City.
"We've adapted really well and we've been doing great as a staff," he said. "Bottom line is take care of business no matter how long you're going to pitch. When I get the ball, whether it's five innings, 75 pitches or four innings, whatever they want me to do, my goal is to limit the other team's hits [and] runs, just like every pitcher should be."
The Astros acquired Cosart from the Phillies in 2011. He has always shown a plus fastball that sits in the mid-90s.
Against the Isotopes in the hitters' haven of Albuquerque on Saturday, Cosart allowed just one run on three hits in five innings. He struck out six and did not walk a batter while his velocity climbed from 95 mph in the first inning to 97 by the fifth.
"My favorite pitcher in the game is Justin Verlander, and [he's] someone that I kind of try to model my game after," Cosart said. "He does the same thing. He'll be running up to 100 in the eighth inning.
"For me [the key is] just making sure those first three innings I'm throwing quality strikes down in the zone, regardless of what the velocity is."
Cosart has heard the various scouting reports that say he might be better off as a closer, something that he admitted has left him more than a little motivated.
"It's been a huge chip on my shoulder," he said. "I know what I can do internally, and I know a lot of these guys within the Astros organization know what I can do. That's why they've kept me as a starter."
Playing leapfrog: When the Milwaukee Brewers needed a starter from Nashville this week, it was not No. 2-ranked prospect Tyler Thornburg or No. 4 Johnny Hellweg who got the call. Instead, it was No. 13 Hiram Burgos, who started the year 0-2 despite a 2.70 ERA in three starts. Thornburg (0-1, 5.40) and Hellweg (1-2, 4.85) have struggled out of the gate.
Rough beginning: For every pitching prospect succeeding in the PCL so far, there are plenty who are finding life tough in a hitters' league. D-backs No. 1 prospect Tyler Skaggs went 4-2 with a 2.91 ERA in nine starts with Reno last year, but this season he is just 1-2 with a 6.46 ERA in three starts.
What happens in Vegas: While much of the attention in Las Vegas has been on Mets' No. 2 prospect Zack Wheeler, the 51s' best pitcher has been right-hander Collin McHugh. Through three starts, McHugh is 2-0 with a 0.50 ERA, striking out 15 and walking just four in 18 innings.