Thursday, March 24, 2011

Relievers Becoming Starters

This season, three relief pitchers are attempting to become starting pitchers. The three are Neftali Feliz of the Texas Rangers, Kyle McClellan of the St. Louis Cardinals and Aaron Heilman of the Arizona Diamondbacks. While it is much more common to go from a starter to a relief pitcher, it's not unprecedented for a relief pitcher to become a starting pitcher. In the old days, most young pitchers broke into the majors in the relief role and worked their way into the rotation. These days, it's much more common to begin a pitcher as a starter and them move him to the bullpen if starting doesn't work out.

The conversion of Feliz from one of the best closers in the game to a starter has gotten a lot of attention. Kyle McClelllan's bid to win the fifth rotation spot left vacant by the injury to Adam Wainwright has received a lot of regional attention. Heilman's bid has received little if any ink in the press.* Only McClellan's bid seems to have definite traction as he's pitched brilliantly this spring and has won the spot.

* Shameless Posnanski Asterisk ripoff: "Ink in the press" is an expression that may die out in this country before long with the bottoming out of the newspaper industry.

And McClellan isn't a pioneer even for his own team. It was just a few years ago that the Cardinals converted Braden Looper from a closer to a starter. Looper had been a closer for the Marlins and the Mets and pitched one year successfully in relief for the Cardinals before the switch in 2007. Looper made 98 starts over the next three seasons, two were somewhat league average for the Cardinals and then a disastrous season for the Brewers in 2009. Looper did not pitch in the majors last year and is currently trying to win a job with the Cubs.

The Cardinals, who have an unbelievably strong core of local writers and bloggers, turned to McClellan when Wainwright went down. Several of the local writers, including one of the Fan's favorites, bemoan the loss of McClellan in the bullpen where he pitched very successfully. This Fan would argue that starting pitching is much more important than relievers and McClellan wanted to be a starter and deserves to go after it. Many are now touting him as the next Jaime Garcia who burst on the scene as a starter last year. If McClellan can carry over his spring success, he will take some of the sting out of the loss of Wainwright and along with Garcia, form a nice nucleus for the Cardinals going forward.

Like McClellan, Heilman has been campaigning to start for a couple of years now. He started 20 games for the Mets early in his career from 2003 to 2005. Since 2005, Heilman has been exclusively a relief pitcher. He had some success as a reliever for the Mets the first couple of years, but two out of the last three years have not been pretty. All of Heilman's peripherals this spring have been good except that he's given up a plethora (six) of homers which has driven up his spring ERA to 5.24. Joe Saunders has been terrible this spring and apparently is in his manager's doghouse. Galarraga will not make the rotation, so there is a good chance that Heilman will get his wish and get the job. Don't be surprised those if the spring era isn't a harbinger of things to come.

Of course the real news maker this spring has been Neftali Feliz. Here's a young pitcher that anchored a team's bullpen that helped carry the Rangers all the way to the World Series. Jon Daniels, the Rangers' general manager, really pushed the idea of Feliz as a starter before this season started. Feliz at first said he'd prefer to stay in the bullpen. Then he changed his mind and said he wanted to start. His spring ERA is brilliant considering how much hitting goes on in the Cactus League. His walk rate is too high but he has the kind of stuff that projects very well as a starter. Daniels has always wanted Feliz as a starter even before his closing heroics of a year ago.

This writer agrees with Daniels. Wouldn't you want one of your best arms for seven innings a game instead of one? It's also in Feliz's best interest as there is more money to be made as a good starter than as a good relief pitcher. The Rangers should stick to this plan and put Feliz in the rotation and out on the mound every fifth day. If it works, you're golden. If it doesn't, he can go back to closing.

While it is more rare these days to go from a relief pitcher to a starter than the other way around, guys like Ryan Dempster of the Cubs, Derek Lowe of the Braves, C. J. Wilson of the Rangers and Brett Myers of the Astros have all shown it can be done and done successfully. The Fan will always believe that an effective starter is worth three effective relievers and if a pitcher has the chops, he should be given a chance to go for it.

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