Spring training 2018: The most notable bullpen-to-rotation pitchers to watch
The Rangers have a lot riding on Mike Minor and Matt Bush
With spring training underway across the Florida and Arizona lands, it's time to remember that for some pitchers the exhibition season is about more than getting into shape -- it's about taking the first step down a potentially career-altering path by proceeding with a transition from the bullpen to the rotation.
While moving the other way, from the rotation to the bullpen, is seen as light work -- studies have shown that most pitchers see their performance tick up in short spurts -- the opposite is not true. Transitioning to starting is a difficult task, one that can easily go wrong.
Confusing correlation with causation is no way to go through life, but it's probably not a coincidence that Neftali Feliz and Daniel Bard's careers went south once they were asked to start. Conversely, it's certainly no coincidence that C.J. Wilson became substantially better paid once he proved he belonged in a rotation. The takeaway is that these experiments matter.
So, let's take a look at this spring's most notable cases of relievers trying to become starters:
No team has more riding on conversion projects than the Texas Rangers do.
The Rangers signed Mike Minor to a three-year deal worth $28 million following a season in which he was one of the top lefty relievers in baseball. It was a great comeback effort, since it was the first time he'd pitched in the majors since 2014 due to injuries. Those durability concerns don't seem to bother the Rangers, who are hoping Minor can return to the mid-rotation starter he was during his finest days with the Atlanta Braves. If he can, the contract will be a pittance.
Minor's attempt at rejoining a rotation feels trivial when compared to what Matt Bush is trying. The 32-year-old has started one game in his professional career, and has never thrown more than 78 innings in a season. He's list at 5-foot-8, which would make him one of the eight or so shortest starters in the majors if he can stick. Can he? Hard to say. Bush has a high-octane arm, one that features a 98 mph fastball and two breaking balls, but there's no way of knowing how he'll handle the physicality required from a starting pitcher -- even one partaking in a six-man rotation.
The most obscure name on the list, Jarlin Garcia appeared in 68 games last season with the Miami Marlins. The results weren't special -- his 86 ERA+ would be poor for a full-time starter -- and his usage suggested manager Don Mattingly had minimal faith in his ability to string together long outings: He recorded more than three outs six times, and fewer than three outs 32 times. Still, the Marlins have little to lose by trotting out Garcia as a starter. He has the body for it (he's listed 6-foot-3, 215 pounds) as well as the stuff, as he combines a mid-90s fastball with a good changeup and a so-so breaking ball. Garcia has a violent delivery, however, complete with recoil and a follow-through that sees him fall off to the third-base side. His mechanics might be his undoing if they prevent him from throwing quality strikes or staying healthy.
The most puzzling inclusion on the list. Everyone knows starters are more valuable than relievers. In Chad Green's case, though, it might make sense to leave him in the bullpen. A career starter, Green was a force in the New York Yankees bullpen in 2017, recording a 1.83 ERA and 1.75 FIP in 69 innings. The Yankees would seem to have sufficient rotation depth as it is, with more on the way in the form of Justus Sheffield and Chance Adams, among others. In theory, Green could always return to the bullpen if he's unable to win or later hold on to a rotation spot. In practice, it might be more sensible to skip the headache and let him do his thing in relief.
Ross Stripling finds himself in a similar situation with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Previously regarded as a potential mid-to-back-end starter, he moved to the bullpen in 2017 and pitched well. The Dodgers would appear to have more starting options than spots and more help is on the way -- top prospect Walker Buehler is expected to open the year in Triple-A, with Dennis Santana, Yadier Alvarez, and Mitchell White beginning the season in Double-A. As a result, Stripling seems unlikely to break camp anywhere but in the Dodgers bullpen.
Acquired from the Yankees in the Chase Headley deal, Bryan Mitchell figures to take a spot in the San Diego Padres rotation. Mitchell has tossed nearly 100 innings in his big-league career, albeit to shaky results: An 87 ERA+ and 1.45 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Despite a mid-90s fastball, he's struggled to miss bats, particularly with a cutter that generated a whiff on less than nine percent of the swings taken against it in 2017. Perhaps the Padres will tweak Mitchell's approach to try to generate more swing-and-miss. Shy of that, he could try carving out a career as a designated groundball-getter in the bullpen.
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