As you know, the current free-agent class is one of the thinnest in years, especially on the pitching side. Journeyman lefty Rich Hill, who was pitching in an independent league less than 18 months ago, is the top available starter. This isn't a good offseason to need pitching. That's for sure.
The Angels have come up with a creative solution to their rotation needs, or at least they hope so. The club signed reliever Jesse Chavez to a one-year contract Friday, and they plan to make him a starting pitcher. Rather than pay big money for one of the back-end starters on the market, the Halos picked up Chavez on the cheap and hope he can provide similar production.
Converting relievers to starters is not a new phenomenon. In recent years we've seen guys like C.J. Wilson, Jeff Samardzija, Ryan Dempster and Derek Lowe have success as starters after serving as reliable relievers. There are some cautionary tales too. Daniel Bard lost it completely when the Red Sox tried to make him a starter in 2012. Converting Juan Nicasio didn't work out for the Pirates in 2016.
What makes a reliever a good candidate to move into the rotation? This is at least part of the criteria, I believe:
- Three pitches. This is pretty important. Starters need a third pitch to help turn over a lineup multiple times. Most relievers work with only two pitches (sometimes even one) because that's all they need. They air it out for an inning and they're out of the game.
- Throws strikes. Relievers can sometimes get away with higher walk rates because they aren't in the game very long and only need to get so many outs. Starters need to soak up innings, and lots of walks equals a high pitch count and a quick exit.
- Repeatable delivery. This one goes hand in hand with the second point. Pitchers with herky jerky deliveries tend to wind up the bullpen because of command and/or health issues. The smoother the delivery, the better.
- Prior starting experience. Once upon a time, pitchers became relievers only after they flamed out as a starter. Nowadays pitchers are groomed as relievers in the minors. Guys with experience starting tend to make the best reliever-to-starter conversion candidates.
Chavez was the best candidate to make the reliever-to-starter move among available free agents this offseason. He wasn't the only candidate for such a conversion, however. Here are four others who could be rotation options going forward after spending the past few seasons pitching in relief.
Among the four players that we'll mention in this space, I think Joe Blanton is the least likely to be successful as a starting pitcher going forward. He was basically out of baseball two years ago before coming back as a slider-heavy reliever. Throwing over 40 percent sliders usually doesn't work for a starter. It's too much strain on the arm.
Blanton, who turns 36 next month, has spent the majority of his career as a starting pitcher, so he has plenty of experience in that role. He also still throws all his pitches; Blanton threw his curveball and changeup a combined 30 percent of the time in 2016. It's not all fastballs and sliders. His walk rate was also a manageable 7.1 percent this past season when removing intentional walks.
And yet, despite that, I don't think Blanton is cut out for rotation work anymore. It's not just the slider-heavy approach either. His velocity jumped from 88-89 mph as a starter to 92-93 mph as a reliever. A team could sign Blanton and promise to give him a shot at the rotation with the fallback option of moving him back into the bullpen. It wouldn't surprise me at all.
Trevor Cahill actually did make a start in 2016. He threw five scoreless innings against the Brewers in the first game of a doubleheader on Aug. 16. His other 49 appearances this past season were all in relief, and 33 of the 49 lasted no more than one inning.
Unlike Blanton, who is on the tail end of his career, Cahill is still only 28 years old. He relies heavily on his low-to-mid-90s sinker, always has and always will, but he also used his curveball and changeup regularly as a reliever. In fact, he threw those two pitches at least 19 percent of the time each in 2016. Those are the rates usually associated with a starter, not a reliever.
Cahill has made 174 starts in his career, so it's a familiar role. The only real concern are the walks. Cahill unintentionally walked 11.4 percent of batters faced this year, well above the 8.2 percent league average. Then again, even during his best years as a starter with the Athletics and Diamondbacks, his walk rate was up around 10 percent. That's just who he is.
The fact Cahill still uses three pitches and has age on his side is enough for me to overlook the walk rate issue. Put him in front of a good infield defense -- the sinker makes him an extreme ground-ball pitcher -- and there's a chance he'll be good enough as a starter to hold down the fourth or fifth spot in someone's rotation.
Like Cahill, Yusmeiro Petit did make a spot start this past season, but it was an emergency start. The Nationals had to scratch Stephen Strasburg from a start at the last minute due to back trouble, and as the long man in the bullpen, Petit got the call for the spot start. He allowed three runs in six innings against the Dodgers.
Petit, who turns 32 later this month, pitches like a starter in relief. He's a rare four-pitch reliever who threw his changeup, his least-used pitch, a healthy 13 percent of the time in 2016. Fastball, slider, curveball, changeup. Petit throws them all. Also, his walk rate this year was a mere 4.6 percent when removing intentional walks.
A guy who throws strikes with four pitchers is starter material. No doubt. Petit has only had limited looks as a starter before, most recently with the 2014 Giants (12 starts), but the tools are there. He might not be an ace. But why drop $8 million or more on a No. 5 starter when Petit could possibly provide similar production at half the cost?
Another Cubs pitcher. Cahill and Travis Wood were bullpen mates the past two seasons, both after beginning their careers as starting pitchers with other teams. Wood was originally with the Reds before being traded to the Cubs in the Sean Marshall deal in December 2011. He was the longest-tenured player on the 2016 World Series champions.
Although he was pigeon-holed into a left-on-left matchup role because that's what Chicago needed, Wood still used three pitches in 2016, supplementing his fastball/curveball combination with a cutter. He did throw a few changeups, though not nearly as many as in his days as a starter. That's a pitch he'll ostensibly need to be an effective starter again.
Wood's unintentional walk rate was 8.8 percent this year, close enough to the league average, and the guy is still only 29. That surprised me. It feels like he has been around forever. Wood is durable, he throws strikes and the cutter gives him a weapon against righties even if he can't rediscover his changeup. And as a bonus, he's left-handed. Southpaws are always in demand.
Keep in mind most relievers, especially those not making big bucks as a closer, would welcome the opportunity to start with open arms. There's more money in starting -- guys like Cahill and Wood could turn a successful starting stint in 2017 into a lucrative multiyear deal in the future -- and also more action. These guys want to play. We're talking 180-plus innings compared to 60-something innings as a reliever.
It only takes one team thinking one of the four pitcher above can still be a successful starter for them to get the opportunity. One team, the Angels, took the plunge with Chavez and decided to turn a free-agent reliever into a starting pitcher. Given the lack of quality in this year's free-agent class, don't be surprised if other clubs follow suit.