Opportunity, Ability Dictate A Pitcher's Role
Once upon a time, an American League team had a hard-throwing righthander who had started his entire career—until he was moved to the bullpen, where he struck out more than a batter an inning, held opponents to a sub-.200 average and helped his team get to the World Series.
The Rangers face that crossroads now with Neftali Feliz, but four years ago, the Tigers were in a similar position with Joel Zumaya.
Or maybe not so similar.
As hard as it may be to conceive now, Zumaya went into spring training 2006 battling Justin Verlander for the final spot in the Detroit rotation. Late in camp, Zumaya went to the bullpen, where he wound up 6-3, 1.94 with 97 strikeouts in 83 innings.
But instead of giving him another chance to start—as the Rangers plan to do this year with Feliz, as the White Sox and Reds eventually will, they say, with Chris Sale and Aroldis Chapman, respectively—the Tigers kept Zumaya in relief.
"One, he was very successful out of the pen," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "Secondly, he liked pitching out of the pen and never really wanted to go back to starting. Once in a while we discussed it, but he really loved being in the pen. Thirdly, the type of pitcher he is, a max-effort type guy, we felt he was probably better suited to pitching out of the bullpen."
But when the Rangers look at Feliz, they see the secondary pitches, the delivery, the minor league track record that suggests he could be a top-of-the-rotation starter. So they feel they owe it to themselves to leave that door open and went into spring training preparing Feliz, the 2010 American League rookie of the year, to start.
"We're at least open to it," general manager Jon Daniels said.
Closing again is always there as a fallback option.
Many major league relievers are pitchers with some ability, but not enough versatility to start. But in recent years, a number of top young arms have become established in the majors as relievers without necessarily failing at starting, leaving their teams to decide whether to, and how to, return them to the rotation.
When these starting pitching prospects arrive in the majors as relievers, it's usually because the team had a need in the bullpen.
"Once you get to this level," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said, "it's you compared to everything else on that 25-man roster and where do you slot? That is, to help that team win games at that moment in time."
Cashman's Joba Chamberlain is the highest-profile example.
The 2007 Yankees were desperate for help in front of closer Mariano Rivera. Minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson suggested giving Chamberlain, a sandwich pick the year before and lifelong starter, a look in relief.
After being tested with three relief appearances in the minors in late July and early August, Chamberlain came up and was electric, with a fastball in the upper 90s and a wicked slider. The result: 0.38 ERA, 34 strikeouts and 12 hits allowed in 24 innings.
But the Yankees insisted in making the bullpen a temporary home. They transitioned him back to the starting rotation in 2008 and had him full-time in that role in 2009.
He had a 4.75 ERA that year, with 76 walks and 21 homers allowed in 157 innings and was pulled from the rotation for the postseason. By last year, he was back to being a full-time reliever, and not the same one from 2007.
It's a cautionary tale, perhaps, as we look at the latest studs put in this situation:
• Feliz, acquired from the Braves in 2007 in the Mark Teixeira deal, was moved from the Triple-A rotation to the bullpen in late June 2009 to see if he could help the big league team. He came up in August and dominated for two months, so much so that although Feliz's role was nominally undetermined going into spring training a year ago. Manager Ron Washington seemed determined to keep him in the bullpen.
It turned out to be the right decision, as Feliz took over the closer's role from Frank Francisco early in the season and saved 40 of 43 chances.
But the Rangers were unable to retain free-agent ace Cliff Lee, and the pitcher on the roster who most looked to have ace stuff was Feliz—leaving his role for 2011 up in the air.
• The Reds surprised many by making the high bid for Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, signing him to a six-year, $30.25 million in January 2010.
After 13 starts at Triple-A Louisville, Chapman moved to the bullpen and flourished. In 26 appearances, he went 4-1, 2.40 with 49 strikeouts and a .156 opponent average in 30 innings, and once had a fastball clocked at 105 mph.
The Reds called him up Aug. 31, and he hit 100 mph (according to Pitch f/x) 75 times in 15 outings.
Cincinnati didn't give up on Chapman's career as a starter, but the Reds had such a loaded rotation that they could afford to leave Chapman in the bullpen for 2011.
"I think over the course of his career, this kid will be given the opportunity to start," pitching coach Bryan Price told FanHouse. "My feeling today is that he fills a need for us with (lefthanded reliever) Arthur Rhodes now in Texas.
"And there are other considerations. As much as people want comparisons to Randy Johnson with both being tall, lanky, lefthanded and hard-throwers, you know that (Chapman) will throw a lot of pitches, as Randy did. He is going to be in some high pitch-count situations, and so you are looking at a lot of four-, five- and six-inning starts as he gets comfortable in the league. It will benefit him to tighten everything up, and that will make the starting thing better when he gets there."
• The Cubs, on the other hand, have need in their rotation—two open spots—and thus were using spring training to give three youngsters who had been mainly relievers in the majors a shot at starting.
Andrew Cashner, the Cubs' 2008 first-round pick, made 53 relief appearances in 2010. But at 24, he can still be considered having starter's upside. Lefty James Russell, 25, made the 2010 Opening Day roster as a longshot. And the Cubs were also giving a chance to Jeff Samardzija, whose prospect status was wavering after having pitched out of the bullpen in 48 of his 53 big league games.
• The Mets seemed likely to send Jenrry Mejia to the minors to start, a significant departure from a year earlier.
Last spring, Jerry Manuel was entering the final year of his contract as Mets manager, so he was particularly worried about the present. He pushed for Mejia, then 20, on the Opening Day roster as a reliever because Mejia had one of the best arms in camp.
But all it did was cost Mejia months of development. Manuel didn't use Mejia in a significant role out of the bullpen—14 of his 30 appearances came with the Mets trailing by more than three runs—and by late June, New York sent Mejia back to the minors to resume starting.
"This guy's got three quality major league pitches," said manager Terry Collins, who last year was the minor league field coordinator and was not on board with moving Mejia to relief. "Now, how's he going to refine them?
"Pitching out of the bullpen, you're going to eliminate one of them—the changeup—so he's a power pitcher. But if he gets (a feel for) that changeup, and he's got a pretty good changeup, now all of a sudden his fastball is (significantly) better. It makes a whole difference. And now all of a sudden he's got something for those middle innings when those guys going up to hunt that fastball, he gets easy outs on something off-speed.
"Now, if he goes down, pitches his brains out, comes back up, we know we can put him back in the bullpen if we need it."
Not An Easy Choice
From a black-and-white statistical standpoint, it would seem obvious: a pitcher who is good for 60 innings would be three times as valuable over 180 innings, and thus should be starting instead of relieving.
But pitchers are people, and it's not such a clear-cut decision. Stuff and mechanics can force a team's hand.
Consider the cases of two ex-Mariners.
Some looked at righthander Brandon Morrow and saw a pitcher with an electric arm but no reliable third pitch. And even though he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Yankees in his first big league start in September 2008, he opened 2009 as the Mariners' closer.
He lost that job, got transitioned back to starting, then got sent down for two months and returned as a September callup.
While Morrow's future role seemed up in the air, the Blue Jays had no qualms. Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos remembers viewing a video of Morrow's final start of 2009, eight one-hit, shutout innings against the Athletics.
"If you can use your eyes and do some homework . . ." Anthopoulos said. "I don't know how many times I watched that, but every time I got more and more excited about trying to acquire him."
The Blue Jays traded Brandon League for him in December 2009 and handed Morrow a rotation spot the next spring.
"We were very confident that he could do it," Anthopoulos said. "You can't ever be sure of what the performance is going to be. But we saw no reason he couldn't start. He had shown the ability to do it, but he had been bounced around roles. He never really had a set role.
"We saw a real good delivery. He really reminded us of A.J. Burnett—similar delivery, similar stuff. He was just a guy who hadn't had a chance to get into a routine. We thought this was an opportunity to get him on a routine, on a program."
The Jays had Morrow lower his arm slot and got rid of a hip turn. He went 3-4, 6.66 through the first two months of the 2010 season but finished 6-3, 3.53 from June on.
"You've got to stick with them," Anthopoulos said. "You've got to let them know they don't have to look over their shoulders."
Morrow finished 10-7, 4.49 with 178 strikeouts in 146 innings and had one of the dominant games of the season: 17 strikeouts, one hit in a shutout of the Rays on Aug. 8.
A year after Seattle passed on Tim Lincecum to take Morrow, it drafted Phillippe Aumont 11th overall in 2007. When a new front office took over after the 2008 season, it moved Aumont to relief—an unusual move when a pitcher is still in Class A.
Aumont went to the Phillies in the (second) Cliff Lee trade, and Philadelphia gave him a chance to start again. Except that after going a combined 3-11, 5.68—including a demotion from Double-A to high Class A—Aumont found himself back in the bullpen this spring.
"We wanted to start him last year and we did," Phillies assistant general manager Chuck LaMar told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "His results weren't very good. But we put him in that position. I felt bad sometimes for the kid. He wants to relieve. He feels comfortable relieving. That's what he did in Seattle."
But mechanics are probably as big a factor as comfort. Aumont is 6-foot-7, and tall pitchers tend to have a harder time repeating their delivery, making it harder for them to have the consistent command required of a starter. (According to baseball-reference.com, only 22 pitchers listed at 6-foot-7 or taller have ever made 100 major league starts.)
"Can he go through the lineup three times?" Collins said, speaking generally. "Does he have enough stuff, does he have enough weapons, that he can go through that lineup three times. Because if he can't, then he's probably destined to be a relief pitcher."
It's Not Just About Stuff
Still, as LaMar referred to, makeup has to factor into the process.
In the 2007 stretch run, it was apparent Chamberlain took to the relief role, feeding off the intensity of the moments. He scrapped his changeup and barely used his curve, which was above-average. The bullpen seemed to suit his personality.
But the Yankees overlooked that in their determination to return Chamberlain to starting, reasoning that it would be a waste to keep a four-pitch pitcher with three plus pitches in relief.
"His minor league performances warranted, 'All right, we've got to make sure he can't do this at the big league level.' " Cashman said.
Chamberlain's saga brings up another point: One issue with transitioning a pitcher from the bullpen to the rotation is how to do it.
Teams are aware of the effect of large workload increases from one year to the next. So the trick is to get a young pitcher from 75 innings to 175 without stressing his arm.
In 2008, the Yankees had Chamberlain open the season in relief, then stretched him out in May before starting him—with gradually increasing innings limits—in June. At one point in late May, Chamberlain pitched 1 1/3 innings of setup and then returned to the bullpen for more pitches—running past Rivera at the bullpen door as the latter came in for the save.
Not only did Chamberlain not show the velocity nor the aggressiveness from 2007, but in his 12th start, he felt something in his shoulder. Cashman has conceded that Chamberlain hasn't been the same since; he was 9-6, 4.75 as a full-time starter in 2009 but hasn't started since, and probably never will.
So getting Feliz, Sale and Chapman—whether it's this year or later—from a reliever's workload to a starter's without damaging their arms might be their respective team's toughest task.
The good news for them is that it's possible to break into the majors as a reliever and later become an effective starter.
"(Feliz) can look across the clubhouse at a guy who just did it 12 months earlier," Daniels said.
Lefthander C.J. Wilson pestered the Rangers for years to give him a chance to start. Last year, with open spots in the rotation, they acquiesced.
Texas had concerns, not about Wilson's stuff or durability, but his tempo. He's a high-energy sort, and the Rangers wondered if he could adjust his mental tempo to starting.
He did. At 29, after 247 straight relief appearances, he became a regular starter. Wilson went 15-8, 3.35 and led the staff in wins, starts, ERA, innings, opponent average and complete games.
"It's easy to look at guys with multiple pitches, repeatable deliveries and athleticism and have reason to believe they can handle that role," Daniels said. "At the end of the day, the guy has to be really driven to want to do it. C.J. really was."
Ed Price is a freelance baseball writer based in New York.